The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed summary judgment on Title VII race and retaliation employment termination claims in Gosey v. Aurora Medical Center, No. 13-3375 (April 11, 2014). In Gosey, the defendant’s sole proffered reason for the termination was alleged chronic tardiness on the part of the plaintiff, in violation of the defendant’s employee handbook punctuality policy. However, a former chief officer of defendant testified that there was a workplace custom and practice of allowing employees a 7-minute grace-period within which to arrive. Defendant’s time-records showed that the plaintiff arrived within the grace-period on all but one of the occasions upon which the defendant based its termination decision. The Seventh Circuit found that there were genuine issues of material fact surrounding the time-records and the defendant’s attendance policy that precluded summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit stated that the existence of a uniform practice or policy that is in doubt cannot serve as a reason for an employment termination. Therefore, a rational jury could conclude that the defendant took the adverse job action on account of the plaintiff’s protected class, and not for any non-invidious reason.
There is an important lesson for employers in this decision. In order to be effective, employee handbook policies must be uniformly and consistently applied. Unwritten custom and practice in the workplace that is inconsistent with written policy may emasculate defenses to employment claims based upon the written policy.