Florida Employers May (Still) Terminate Their Employees For Insubordination

by Akerman LLP - HR Defense

In a legal environment where employers often feel the deck is stacked against them, it is good to know that Florida courts will support employers who do not discriminate, when they need to terminate an insubordinate employee.  Such was the case in Jones v. Suburban Propane, Inc., 2014 WL 204424 (N.D. Fla. 2014), decided just this month, where the court granted summary judgment in favor of employer Suburban Propane, Inc., in a suit brought by a former delivery driver who was discharged for being "insubordinate to an extent that many and probably most employers would find grounds for termination."

In 2010, Jones and another employee filed charges of racial discrimination with the Florida Commission on Human Relations.  The charges were settled two months later.  Two years later, a Suburban Propane manager received a call from a person who identified himself as Jones' nephew, who claimed that Jones was "driving a company truck while intoxicated, selling drugs from the truck, and transporting a nonemployee in the truck."  The manager called Jones to discuss the allegations.  Over the course of several telephone calls, Jones told the manager to "stay out of [his] business" because "[it] was a family problem."  He also purportedly "cursed" at the manager.  The manager believed that Jones' speech sounded slurred and requested his location in order to send someone to pick up the truck. 

Despite several requests by his manager, Jones refused to provide the address where the truck was located and threatened to "call a wrecker to have the truck towed." The manager informed Jones that his job was in jeopardy if he did not reveal the location of the truck and also instructed him not to have the truck towed.  Jones refused and, ultimately, he had the truck towed to Suburban Propane's lot.  It was later determined that the truck was at Jones' home the entire time.

Several days after this incident, two Suburban Propane managers met with Jones and provided him with an opportunity to explain his actions.  Jones exhibited a poor attitude during the meeting and could offer "no reasonable explanation for refusing to tell [the manager] the truck's location or for calling a tow truck contrary to [the manager's] instruction."  As such, Jones was terminated based on his poor attitude and insubordination during both the June 23rd calls and during the June 26th meeting.  Jones filed suit claiming that his termination was a result of racial discrimination and/or in retaliation for previously filing a charge of discrimination.  Suburban Propane moved for summary judgment.

After considering Jones' discrimination claim and his explanation for not providing the location of the vehicle because "he could not remember his address because of stress and high blood pressure," the court granted summary judgment for Suburban Propane concluding that the Jones was unable to show that Suburban Propane's proffered reason for his termination—insubordination—was pretext for discrimination.  The court opined:  "It is undisputed that Jones engaged in conduct that a reasonable employer could deem insubordinate.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any employer not deeming Jones's conduct insubordinate."  The court also emphasized that "…the critical issue is not whether Jones had an excuse for his insubordinate conduct, nor even whether he was in fact insubordinate (as he clearly was). The critical issue is whether [his manager] believed Jones was insubordinate and fired him for that reason."

The court also granted summary judgment in favor of Suburban Propane on Jones' retaliation claim, holding that Jones had not established a prima facie case of retaliation.  "The gap between [the filing of the charge of discrimination] and the termination was more than two years. And the record includes no other evidence suggesting any connection between the two events[,]" the court wrote.

Jones v. Suburban Propane is a good example of when the system gets it right, for the right reasons.  In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, Florida employers may terminate employees for any legitimate non-discriminatory reason, including insubordination, which is judged based on the employer's subjective belief.  However, as was the case in Jones, where the employee previously filed a charge of discrimination or engaged in protected activity, it is especially important for employers to consult with experienced labor and employment counsel to minimize the possibility of a lawsuit—even if it is one in which they will ultimately prevail.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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