UPDATE [5:35 PM 4/12/07]: This case has been dismissed. The commentary below is still applicable because a similar issue will be considered in Sawicki v. Morgan State University instead.
This is a deceptively innocent looking case with surprisingly powerful consequences to those of us who work for an organization. I will summarize the case here, but for all of the documents, go here.
Albuquerque, New Mexico The case begins with a Friday request from a district sales manager, Cesar Grado, through supervisor Jeff Katt, that Stephen Peters, a senior Coca-Cola merchandiser (the person who sets up the Coca-Cola product for sale in supermarkets), work on Sunday (one of his scheduled days off). Mr. Peters informs Mr. Grado that he had plans for Sunday and could not work on Sunday.
This set off a string of events that led to the termination of Mr. Peters. From the facts of the case: Mr. Grado decided to seek advice from the Human Resources Department. Ms. Sherry Pederson (office in Albuquerque) was out of the office on Friday afternoon, so Mr. Grado called Ms. Pat Edgar in Phoenix. Mr. Grado said that he expected Mr. Peters was going to refuse to come to work on Sunday, and asked whether he could require Mr. Peters to come in on his day off. Specifically, he told Ms. Edgar that Mr. Peters planned to call in sick on Sunday. Ms. Edgar found that prospect “unacceptable” because, under BCI Coca Cola policy, an employee may not call in sick two days in advance. She advised Mr. Grado to “find out what the situation was” and, unless Mr. Peters had a “compelling reason” why he could not come to work, to order Mr. Peters to work on Sunday. She told Mr. Grado to characterize the instruction as a “direct order” and to say that failure to comply would amount to insubordination, which is grounds for termination.
All told, Mr. Peters did not work on that Sunday, as he was ill. Mr. Peters did call in sick to his supervisor, Mr. Katt. On Monday, Ms. Edgar made the decision to terminate Mr. Peters for insubordination, in spite of a previous disciplinary action taken against Mr. Peters for taking leave to be a pallbearer at a funeral for his fiancee’s son (who he had raised as his own for years). The management told him that was not a good reason for not showing up to work, because the deceased was not his biological son.
Afterwards, Ms. Edgar stated that she did not know Mr. Peters was Black. All of her information to decide to terminate Mr. Peters came from Mr. Grado, who had an antagonistic relationship with his Black employees. The workforce of BCI in Albuquerque was more than 60% Hispanic (not a race but national origin), while fewer than 2% were Black.
At bottom, this case reflects the sad state of affairs in the nation’s organizations. Namely, the near total power given to the employer to act wantonly towards employees. The West Publishing Company indexes “employment discrimination law” under “master & servant.” Master & servant has strong allusions to slavery, which in my observations, grounds the attitude of organization management towards employees. Careful examination of employment law cases will bear this out. One example is Jackson v. Flint Ink (before being vacated). Outside a few narrow exceptions (like Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts and other similar laws), employers are given a free hand to do with employees as they see fit (except there is a collective bargaining agreement (that is, a union).
The crux of BCI Coca Cola is the failure of the human resources department to do a proper investigation. What was done here is an investigation in name only. BCI’s human resources department never called Mr. Peters (on the Friday) to get his side of the situation. A fact noted by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Remember, too, that no matter how neutral the “human resources” office may sound, the department is an arm of the organization’s management, not for the benefit of the organization’s employees.
The corporations in the friend of the court briefs to the Supreme Court declare that requiring them to do real investigations would be too costly. I disagree. It would not take too much effort to call Mr. Peters before giving advice to Mr. Grado on Friday. In order to make good decisions, the decision maker must have all of the facts. What BCI did is wrong and should not be given sanction by the Supreme Court.
Oral arguments for BCI Coca Cola v. EEOC are scheduled for April 18, 2007.