injured employee loses appeal of retaliation and age discrimination claim
Robert Turnbell sued his employer, Severstal Steel North America, after he was terminated from his job as a production supervisor. He supervised almost 30 employees daily, working 3 separate shifts, enforcing the employer's rules, regulations and safety conditions. He was allegedly terminated after violating a "cardinal" safety rule by entering a confined hole to retrieve a ladle without obtaining prior safety approval. Mr. Turnbull maintained that he was actually fired because he had previously filed two workers compensation claims and pointed to his supervisor's remark that he "had a target on his back" because of these claims. He also pointed to another manager's disputation of the validity of his comp claims and argued that he was treated disparately for a minor safety violation because of his age and the comp record.The supervisor did not dispute the remark about having a target on his back, but claimed it related to Turnbull's violation of safety rules. Furthermore, Turnbull was able to document his claim that other employees with safety violations were suspended but not terminated. Lastly, the court discounted the supervisor's denigration of Turnbull's comp record as mere "stray remarks" and not evidence of animus. Even though the manager had taken the position that comp was not properly payable to Turnbull, and even though he had also reported the safety violations that lead to Turnbull's discharge, the court found no causal connection between these developments.
While the court took into account the fact that the safety violation occurred immediately before Turnbull's termination, it found that the similarly close timing of the supervisor's comp-claim-denigrating comments was not relevant. Instead, the Court ruled that Turnbull "was not qualified to hold his job" because he allegedly could not articulate the cardinal safety rules of the employer, Severstal, at least as assessed by the supervisor. In short, hostile appellate judges decided all of the conflicting facts in favor of the employer and against the terminated employee and refused to allow a jury trial, as required by law, to determine whether the employer's stated grounds for dismissal of Turnbull was mere "pretext." Under the law, filing a comp claim should not create a "target on your back:" in this political and economic climate, in fact it does, and some judges will take shots at that target, too.