Employee handbooks often play a significant role in a variety of cases filed against employers. This includes wage-hour cases (such as meal and rest period, reporting time pay, vacation, and sick pay claims) as well as employment discrimination, wrongful termination and retaliation cases. Experience teaches that employee handbooks can either help employers defend such lawsuits or provide harmful evidence if policies are not properly drafted.

In the recent decision in Noumoff v. Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc., ___ F. Supp.2d ___, Case No. 1:20-cv-395 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 31, 2023), a federal district court in Ohio granted an employer summary judgment on a former employee’s gender discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio law. The court cited the employer’s honest belief that the employee had committed multiple violations of its employee handbook provisions as a basis to deny the employee’s discrimination and retaliation claims.

1. Background

The action raised the question of whether the defendant, Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, discriminated against and mistreated the plaintiff, Patra Noumoff, during her employment and subsequent termination. The employer operated 265 restaurants across the country and owned the Rally’s Restaurant in Spring Grove, Ohio. The plaintiff was the general manager of the restaurant.

The employer had an employee handbook for all its locations. Multiple sections of the handbook were relevant to the litigation, including provisions titled “what we can expect from you,” “employee conduct and work rules” that provide examples of infractions that can result in discipline or termination, progressive discipline, “time keeping and pay,” and employee benefits provisions relating to taking vacation.

The plaintiff was terminated for several reasons, including making inappropriate adjustments to the time records of two lower employees, insubordination for taking vacation without proper approval, and other alleged misconduct. The plaintiff then filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of federal and Ohio law. She later filed a lawsuit asserting these claims.

2. The Employer’s Summary Judgment Motion

The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that it was entitled to summary judgment on each claim as a matter of law. The federal district court in Ohio agreed that the employer was entitled to summary judgment on the employee’s gender discrimination claim as a matter of law. It began the analysis by stating that Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual because of such individual’s, race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. So does Ohio law.

a. The McDonnell Douglas Analysis

The employee attempted to prove her gender discrimination claim with indirect evidence. Because she relied on indirect evidence, the court was required to apply the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (2007) burden-shifting framework to her claim. Under this framework, the plaintiff has the initial burden to prove a prima facie case of gender discrimination. If the plaintiff satisfies her initial burden, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Lastly, if the defendant satisfies its burden, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the stated reasons were pretext for discrimination.

To establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination, the plaintiff has the burden of showing: (1) she was a member of a protected class, (2) she was subject to an adverse employment action, (3) she was qualified for the position, and (4) others, similarly situated and outside the protected class were treated differently.

b. The Employee Handbook

After assuming the plaintiff established a prima facie case for gender discrimination, the court recognized that the burden shifted to the defendant. That burden is one of production, not persuasion. The court found that the employer met its burden. It provided evidence of multiple employee handbook violations committed by the plaintiff, who was a general manager. She received a written warning for her alleged failure to be courteous, a final warning for insubordination for taking vacation that was not previously approved, and allegedly violated the handbook by manipulating two employees’ time and thus their pay. “All alleged Handbook violations are grounds for termination.” Because the employer’s burden is only one of production, it satisfied its burden to establish that it had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons to terminate the employee.

That resulted in the transition of the burden to the plaintiff to establish that such reasons are pretext. She failed to do so. As the court pointed out, “the Defendant honestly believed that Plaintiff violated the Handbook on numerous occasions thereby warranting termination, and Plaintiff did not produce evidence to the contrary other than her own testimony and opinions.” Thus, she failed to establish any genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer’s proffered reasons for the adverse employment actions were pretextual. The employer was therefore entitled to summary judgment on the gender discrimination and retaliation claims.

3. Practical Observations

Ultimately, the court concluded that the employer prevailed on the employee’s gender discrimination and retaliation claims. On a practical level, the employer’s good faith, honest reliance on multiple provisions of its employee handbook that cited examples of inappropriate conduct and rules for taking vacation proved extremely helpful to the employer. It demonstrates that drafting and administrating employee handbooks in a fair and logical manner can be invaluable.

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About The Author

Richard J. Simmons is a Partner in the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP in Los Angeles. He represents employers in various employment law matters involving litigation throughout the country and general advice regarding state and federal wage and hour laws, employment discrimination, wrongful discharge, employee discipline and termination, employee benefits, affirmative action, union representation proceedings, and arbitrations. Mr. Simmons received his B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Massachusetts, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar and graduated in the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. He received his J.D. from Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley where he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Industrial Relations Law Journal, now the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law.

Mr. Simmons argued the only case before the California Supreme Court that produced a victory for employers and business in 2018. He was recently recognized as the Labor and Employment Attorney of the Year by the Los Angeles Business Journal and was inducted into the Employment Lawyers Hall of Fame. He has lectured nationally on wage and hour, employment discrimination, wrongful termination, and other employment and labor relations matters. He is a member of the National Advisory Board to the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, published by Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley. He was also appointed by the California Industrial Welfare Commission as a member of three Minimum Wage Boards for the State of California.