Case Report: Court Rules in Favor of Company in Discrimination Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of Rock-Tenn Services, Inc., which does business as WestRock Services, in a discrimination case. The plaintiff alleged he was treated unfavorably because he is a man and is not Jewish. Attorneys Marshall S. Ney and Angela Artherton represented Rock-Tenn Services in the lawsuit. 

The decision was reviewed in a recent article by Jan-Anne B. Casuga of Bloomberg Law: 

Man Who Said He Was Fired for Not Being Jewish Loses Bias Suit

An Arkansas paper and packaging manufacturer didn’t discriminate against an account executive who alleged he was treated unfavorably and fired because he’s a man and not Jewish, a federal appeals court ruled.

The case provides practitioners with an example of what does and doesn’t constitute shifting termination rationales from an employer that can send a worker’s discrimination case to trial. That’s one type of evidence that employees can use to dispute an employer’s discharge reasons as pretextual, or meant to hide its true discriminatory motive.

‘‘The court’s handling of discrimination claims asserted by a male, Christian employee and the rigor of its analysis concerning the sufficiency of evidence necessary to raise a fact issue regarding pretext should prove helpful in future cases,’’ Marshall S. Ney, an attorney with Friday, Eldredge & Clark in Rogers, Ark., told Bloomberg Law Jan. 9. Ney is one of the lawyers representing Rock-Tenn Services Inc., which now does business as WestRock Services.

Aaron Rooney alleged that a Jewish vice president of Rock-Tenn ‘‘experienced a Jewish resurgence’’ and was building a ‘‘Jewish empire’’ at the company. He also said his direct supervisor, a Jewish woman, would comment about the number of women in the office and how she couldn’t wait ‘‘until there’s more ladies in the office.’’ Rooney said some of his accounts were given to women before he was fired and that he was replaced by a Jewish employee. He sued under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and state law.

A federal judge sided with Rock-Tenn, which said it fired Aaron Rooney because he didn’t interact well with co-workers and failed to support a customer. Rooney argued that the judge who dismissed his race and sex discrimination claims impermissibly expanded Rock-Tenn’s termination reasons to include other instances of alleged poor performance.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit disagreed, explaining that an employer during litigation can elaborate on its explanations for a disputed employment decision without substantially contradicting its earlier explanations. In this case, Rock-Tenn’s additional examples of Rooney’s poor performance didn’t point to discrimination, the court said.

The appeals court also rejected Rooney’s other arguments disputing the stated reasons underlying his firing. ‘‘The court was able to follow its well-established precedent that a federal court is not a super-personnel department with authority to review the wisdom or fairness of business judgments made by employers,’’ Ney said.

Rooney’s attorney, Stephen L. Wood of Rogers, Ark., didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s Jan. 9 request for comment.

Angela C. Artherton of Friday, Eldredge & Clark also represented Rock-Tenn.

Judge John M. Gerrard wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Steven Colloton and William D. Benton.

The case is Rooney v. Rock-Tenn Servs., Inc., 8th Cir., No. 16-3631, summary judgment affirmed 1/9/18.

Marshall and Angela serve as litigation counsel to businesses, insurance companies, school districts and individuals in most types of complex and commercial disputes, employment claims and insurance coverage issues. Both are located in the firm's Rogers office.