A Complex Wrongful Termination Case
For anyone who feels they were wrongfully terminated from their job, the following case, involving a plaintiff’s claim that her employment was terminated because of her race, involves many different legal concepts and rulings. Because of that complexity, it can be highly instructive.
We’ve summarized the main proceedings of the case and provided a second section listing important employee takeaways from the rulings. If you’re in a position where you feel wrongfully terminated, or simply want to know your rights and precedents, read on.
Michele Dimanche v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)
Plaintiff Michele Dimanche, in her legal action, alleges that her supervisors at MBTA conspired to terminate her employment because of her race. Dimanche is a black woman of Haitian descent who worked as a motor person on the MBTA Green Line from 2000 until 2013. What caused Dimanche’s suspension and termination was an incident on January 25, 2013, involving a co-worker, another black Haitian woman. Both women claimed that the other was the instigator who yelled, spat, cursed and continued the fight form the office into the lobby.
The event was witnessed by many MBTA employees and the other woman reported the incident to a supervisor. Both women were suspended during the investigation of the affair. By the time of the altercation, Dimanche had already received four disciplinary warnings and a five-day suspension. MBTA’s regulations provided the possibility of termination for a fifth infraction. She was suspended for thirty days and then terminated. Dimanche insisted that the five previous disciplinary rulings were fabricated or distorted out of proportion.
On January 8, 2015, Dimanche filed suit in federal court on three counts: 1) racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981; 2) racial discrimination under Massachusetts General Law ch. 151B. § 4; and 3) intentional infliction of emotional distress. The complaint stated that MBTA “subjected Ms. Dimanche to racial discrimination as a means to humiliate and ultimately terminate her.” It also labeled six co-workers and supervisors as the ones conducting the racial harassment.
Although the MBTA was correctly served on February 20, 2015, they failed to file a timely answer due to a clerical error. The district court entered a default for Dimanche (when a defendant fails to respond to a claim in the time set by law) on June 2, 2015. One week later, the MBTA filed a motion to set aside the default which was denied by the district court. On July 31, 2015, the MBTA refiled the motion to set aside the default and in September, the district court lifted the default over Dimanche’s objections. On February 10, 2016, Dimanche moved to clarify the scope of the sanctions. This was denied on February 26, 2016.
The trial began on October 17, 2016. Dimanche took the stand and produced two former co-workers and her psychiatrist as witnesse. The MBTA presented nine witnesses including three who witnessed the fight. Dimanche and her witnesses alleged that a couple of white inspectors referred to her as a “black bitch” and made fun of her Haitian accent. She claimed a supervisor refused to process her complaints. Although MBTA testified about its disciplinary policy, the altercation incident and the investigation, and the resulting decision to terminate Dimanche, they did not address her specific claims of racial harassment.
On October 20, 2016, the jury ruled in favor of Dimanche assessing MBTA for over $1.3 million in compensatory damages and $1.3 million in punitive damages. The MBTA appealed the decision based on three reasons: 1) there was insufficient evidence to support the jury verdict; 2) the district judge committed reversible error, and 3) the court lacked sufficient subject matter jurisdiction. Regarding reason #2, the MBTA claimed that the trial judge made two basic errors. One was that he imposed a very severe punitive sanction as the price for removing MBTA’s accidental default. The other was that the hostile work environment charge was only added on the last day of the trial. Regarding reason #3, the MBTA brought up the court’s decision in the Buntin case which held that “a plaintiff may not bring claims for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against state actors, including defendants sued in their official capacities as government officials.”
The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling. The asserted that MBTA did not make the appropriate objections and offers of proof. The Court of Appeals did agree that the trial judge committed an error in imposing the default sanction order. However, they did not agree with MBTA’s claim that the trial judge was prejudiced by either the default sanction order or the late hostile work environment charge. They also waived MBTA’s argument on the Buntin case regarding no plaintiff claims for damages for state actors and officials.
For those employees who feel they were wrongfully terminated or who feel that an unfair termination is a risk, this case provides some valuable lessons.
- Know the laws—The more you know about legal processes involved in termination cases, different types of discrimination, sexual harassment, and other personnel-related issues, the better off you will be. This case is particularly instructive because of the many legal and administrative concepts involved including employer policies on termination, the process of filing suit in court, what can qualify as racial discrimination, the defendant’s responsibility to file a timely answer to a court serving, default, sanctions, the role of witnesses, compensatory and punitive damages, the referencing of prior cases, and the appeal process. Studying recent cases of wrongful termination can be helpful. Become familiar with the legal concepts and lexicon.
- Make your complaints and document everything—If you feel that as an employee something has been done to you unfairly by the employer of a co-worker, follow the due process of the complaint procedure. This creates a record no matter if the complaint goes unheeded. Also, document these cases of unfair treatment and discrimination. Include the names of the offenders and the dates they happened. You will likely need all of this information if your employment situation becomes more serious.
- Gather your witnesses—In this case, Dimanche was able to really on testimony from two former co-workers and her treating psychiatrist. It is very possible that their testimony may have made the difference in the rulings of this case.
There is no question that employers can be unfair in their dealings with employees. History is rife with examples of employer unfair treatment, discrimination, and harassment. However, this does not mean that you are powerless in these situations. What can help you is your knowledge of company policy, legal issues involved in wrongful termination cases, your following of due process with any complaints, and your accurate documentation of events?