Friday, August 22, 2014

Seventh Circuit Upholds Employer’s Right to Set Work Schedule

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a District Court’s finding that it is reasonable both for an employer to require an employee to work a specific schedule and fire him if he won’t work it. In Huang v. Continental Casualty Co. 754 F.3d 447 (7th Cir. 2014) the court found that the plaintiff was discharged for refusing to work Saturdays because of family obligations and not because, as he claimed, he is Chinese and had complained about workplace issues.

Beginning in August 2007, Plaintiff, Huang, repeatedly refused to work the weekend hours that CNA assigned him for pager duty, citing family obligations.  Huang persisted in his refusal even after his supervisor and Human Resources reminded him that pager duty is a work requirement, equally shared by all team members, and told him that CNA could fire him for refusing it.  In response, Huang offered to work from the office on Sundays in exchange for having Monday’s off, but refused to carry a pager and remain on call while at home during the weekends.

Around this time, Huang made a workplace complaint.  Huang’s supervisor had told him, for reasons unrelated to his refusal to comply with pager duty, that Huang was “pissing [him] off.”  In response, Huang emailed the Human Resources Department to complain about the comment.  In addition, two years earlier, Huang had also complained to Human Resources about another supervisor’s “favoritism” towards some co-workers, but the nature of that complaint was not before the Court.

In December, 2007, four months after first refusing to comply with the on-call directive, Huang’s supervisor and a Human Resource agent met with him and gave him one final opportunity to commit to a weekend, work-from-home schedule.  They again warned him that CNA would fire him if he did not comply with the weekend hours job requirement.  When he again refused, CNA followed through and discharged him.

The District Court granted CNA’s motion for summary judgment determining that because Huang ignored pager duty, he did not provide evidence that he had met the company’s legitimate job expectations.  The Seventh Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s contention that pager duty was not legitimate because it was not written in his job description.  The court made several important observations.  First, employers are entitled to determine their scheduling needs, as well as decide whether employees are satisfying them.  Huang’s offer to work Sundays could not satisfy CNA’s needs because the company needed him on call throughout all of Sunday and Saturday and he refused to comply.  Second, although a longing to spend more time with family is understandable, it does not undermine the legitimacy of a work schedule that cuts into family time.  Nor does Huang’s preference for home life invalidate CNA’s conclusion that Huang did not meet the employer’s work expectations.  Finally, CNA need not have memorialized its pager duty in a job description to make it a valid employment expectation.

In addition, the Court found that Huang provided no evidence that CNA treated other similarly-situated non-Chinese workers more favorably.  The Court noted that to survive summary judgment, Huang needed to identify another employee, outside of his protected class, who refused a comparable work assignment but was not fired.  He failed to produce any such evidence of a comparably insubordinate co-worker. As a result, Huang failed to show a prima facie case of discrimination.

With respect to plaintiff’s retaliation claim, Huang needed to present evidence that he made a complaint about unlawful discrimination.  The Seventh Circuit recognized that although he did complain about workplace issues twice (unelaborated protests about “favoritism” and an objection to his supervisor saying that Huang was “pissing [him] off”), Huang provided no evidence that these two complaints were about unlawful discrimination.  Without such evidence that Huang engaged in protected conduct, the retaliation claim failed.