A while back, I had a good discussion with a colleague on a topic with no real firm answers.

No, it wasn’t on whether the Yankees are better franchise than the Red Sox.  The answer to that is unequivocally yes.  (Sorry, Sox fans.)

Rather: When is a employee-related issue a legal one? Or alternatively, when

As I return from an extended absence for the Thanksgiving holiday, my colleagues Gary Starr and Gabe Jiran share this alert about anonymous threats in the workplace based on a recent Circuit Court decision

starrEmployee complaints based on anonymous harassment pose special problems for employers.  How do you uncover the source of the problem

Let’s try something a little new today: I’ll give you some facts and see if you can pick the result that a court or agency found. (Hat tip to Overlawyered for highlighting some of these issues.)  I’ll give you the lesson learned from these cases at the end.

Used Car Salesman Loses Temper

1.  Nick is hired in late August 2008 as a used car salesman (really).  On the first day on the job, Nick worked in a tent sale and inquired about the bathroom facilities.  The manager responded that it was in the store.  The next week, when he asked if he could use the bathroom during tent sales, the manager responded “you’re always on break buddy … you just wait for customers all day”.  He told Nick that he could leave if he did not like the employer’s policies.  During the next tent sale, he asked other salespeople about the compensation policy. He also raised the issue of bathroom breaks as well.

At another tent sale (apparently, tent sales are very popular), Nick asked his manager about the commissions for a vehicle and thought the employer was stealing money from him in calculating his commissions.  He then went to the state’s wage & hour agency to obtain more information about commission-based payments.

By October 2008, his manager met with Nick in private office saying that he had no intention of firing Nick but that he was “talking a lot of negative stuff” and asking too many questions.  The manager also said that if Nick did not trust the employer, he didn’t need to work there.  Nick then lost his temper calling the manager a “f–ing mother f–ing”, a “f—ing crook” and an “a–hole.”  Nick also told the manager he was “stupid” and stood up, pushed his chair aside and told the manager that if he was fired, the manager would regret it.

Nick is then fired and brings a claim against his employer.

Will Nick win his claim?

a) No, yelling at his boss is “obscene and denigrating” and thus grounds to fire the employee, even if he did engage in some “protected” activity.

b) No, while he made threats against his boss, they were empty words and he did not engage in “protected” actvity anyways because mere discussions regarding compensation are not covered.

c) Yes, because Nick’s outburst was not menacing, physically aggressive or belligerent and he engaged in “protected” activity.

d) Yes, because the right to use a bathroom is protected under state law and Nick was right to be upset that his use was restricted.


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