Former Burger King Restaurant Manager Has Triable Disability Bias Claim, Court Finds
By Anna Kwidzinski
A former manager of a Burger King restaurant in Pennsylvania may advance her disability discrimination claims because questions exist about whether she was fired for violating a company rule or for taking too much time off to care for her son, who had cancer, a federal judge in Pittsburgh ruled March 27 (Buffington v. PEC Mgmt. II LLP, W.D. Pa., No. 1:11-cv-229, 3/27/13).
Theresa Buffington alleged that district managers and upper management discriminated against her by firing her for tending to her son after seven years of employment with no written or oral warnings, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Denying summary judgment to PEC Management II LLP, Judge Maurice B. Cohill of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania found that Buffington sufficiently raised questions of genuine material fact regarding the franchise’s true motivation behind her November 2010 discharge.
PEC claimed that Buffington’s performance had been steadily declining, and the fact that she let a nonmanager drive to complete a company errand in violation of company policy was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Ultimately, the court decided, these issues remain for a reasonable jury to examine. “[T]he legal issue to be addressed is whether [Buffington] was dismissed from her duties by the employer based on unproven assumptions and speculation by the employer of sub-standard work performance by the employee because of the employee’s association with a disabled person,” Cohill wrote.
Liberal Construction of State Disability Law
The court interpreted the PHRA in the spirit of the law, allowing Buffington to proceed on her association claims within both the state and the federal frameworks.
Agreeing with Buffington’s argument that the state statute was modeled after the federal disability law, the court found that the ADA extends protections to employees whom the employer knows to have a relationship or association with a disabled person.
However, PEC contended, the PHRA provides that an employer must make reasonable accommodations only to the disabled individual himself, not to his relatives or associates.
The court held that a strict, black-letter law interpretation of the PHRA would contravene the legislative goals of the ADA. As such, the court construed the PHRA liberally, “in consideration of principles of fair employment law.”
Son’s Relapse, Company’s Vehicle Policy
Alleging violations of the ADA and PHRA, Buffington contended that her employer fired her because she had to care for her teenage son, who had been battling cancer for 12 years. It is undisputed that Buffington’s supervisors knew of her son’s illness when they first hired her in 2003 as a general manager, the court said.
Buffington’s most recent supervisor was Alice Lawrence, an Ellwood City district manager with PEC, which owns and operates 34 Burger King restaurants in Western Pennsylvania.
After her son suffered a relapse in April 2010, Buffington received an overall rating of “Good minus” in her March 2010 performance review, the court found. But Lawrence noted a steady decline in Buffington’s work performance throughout the summer of 2010.
PEC’s managing director in August 2010 sent all the managers a reminder of an established corporate policy prohibiting nonmanager employees from driving for restaurant business, the court recalled.
In November 2010, Buffington was the only manager on duty when she ran out of a product and sent a crew member in his own car to pick up the product at a neighboring Burger King. The crew member got into an accident, prompting a meeting with Buffington, Lawrence, and another district manager.
Buffington claimed that during the meeting Lawrence commented that the restaurant needed “someone whose head is there 100 percent,” and now she could spend all her time with her son, before firing her. Buffington filed federal suit in October 2011.
Conflicting Evidence Raises Questions for Jury
The court held that PEC’s motion for summary judgment must be denied at this stage in the litigation because too many questions regarding Buffington’s termination arose, signaling the need for a jury determination.
Analyzing the facts under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the court questioned whether Buffington presented a prima facie case of association discrimination, and whether the corporate vehicle policy violation was a nondiscriminatory reason for her termination or a pretext for bias.
Neither Buffington nor PEC disputed that Buffington was in a protected class based on her relationship with her disabled son, and that she was discharged. However, a reasonable jury can better assess whether Buffington’s work performance should be deemed subpar, the court held.
While Buffington argues that she was never disciplined and received numerous pay raises throughout her seven-year tenure with PEC, franchise management claims that her performance and the restaurant she managed experienced a steady decline beginning in late 2009.
Likewise, the court held, a jury must examine whether circumstances surrounding Buffington’s discharge raised a reasonable inference of unlawful discrimination.
Whereas PEC emphasizes its strict adherence to the company vehicle policy, Buffington claims this rule was never enforced, adding that “it was common practice for managers to send staff on errands to other restaurants.” Buffington also presented several comparators, namely managers outside of a protected class, who were not fired for violating the vehicle policy.
A trier of fact must also determine whether Lawrence was the actual decisionmaker, what Lawrence said during the termination meeting, and whether her possible comments about Buffington spending time with her son may have been the true reason for the discharge.
“Speculation of this kind would show that PEC relied on unfounded stereotypes or assumptions about the type of care Buffington would need to give her son in the future,” the judge reasoned.
David B. Spear and Erin B. Friez of Goldman Schafer & Spear in Pittsburgh represented Buffington. Matthew W. McCullough of MacDonald, Illig, Jones & Britton in Erie, Pa., represented PEC.
By Anna Kwidzinski
Text of the decision is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/BUFFINGTON_v_PEC_MANAGEMENT_II_LLP_Docket_No_111cv00229_WD_Pa_Oct.