A recent opinion out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals provides a good reminder: sometimes, no matter what their “protected status,” an employee’s behavior warrants dismissal. In Pearlman v. Pritzker, No. 13-1563 (4th Cir. Apr. 3, 2014), the Fourth Circuit concluded that a federal agency lawfully fired an insubordinate employee who had a “black-list” and was known for angry outbursts.
Michael Pearlman was hired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) as a program analyst in June 2010. Soon thereafter, Pearlman requested the services of an interpreter as a reasonable accommodation for his deafness. NOAA obliged, providing him with an interpreter through a pre-existing arrangement with an outside vendor. Pearlman’s opinion, however, was that the vast majority (12 of 14) of the interpreters were substandard, such that he placed them on his “black-list” or “do not call list.”
Nearly a year after it hired him, NOAA fired Pearlman for his poor performance, a bad attitude, and his behavior toward the interpreters.
After his employment was terminated, Pearlman sued Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, alleging that NOAA discriminated against him on the basis of his deafness when it fired him in retaliation for his complaints about the inadequacy of NOAA’s interpreter services.
NOAA’s termination letter to Pearlman stated that his performance did not merit continued employment with the agency. Specifically, Pearlman claimed to have successfully and independently implemented 23 projects. At one point, Pearlman was instructed to provide specifics on the projects he listed, which led NOAA supervisors to discover that Pearlman “provided little tangible assistance” on the projects he listed as completing independently. In fact, many of the 23 projects Pearlman referenced had been implemented by others or under the supervision of others.
Other reasons given for Pearlman’s termination involved complaints about his interaction with coworkers, who described him as “abrupt and demanding,” “intimidating, disrespectful or personally offensive,” and recognized his “outbursts of anger and frustration when co-workers disagreed” with him. As a result of this conduct, and Pearlman’s often near-hostile communications, Pearlman was warned to improve his conduct.
On one occasion, Pearlman, in the court’s words, “got very loud [and] angry.” A co-worker reported that Pearlman seemed ready to explode. The contractor providing that interpreters contacted NOAA in response to Pearlman’s conduct stating that he was a client with specific demands who made interpreters uncomfortable
The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment in Pritzker’s favor, finding that there was no genuine dispute of material fact that Pearlman was fired for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons, and that Pearlman did not demonstrate that the reasons given were pretextual. In short, Pearlman was fired because he was rude, disruptive, sarcastic, and a bully.
Affirming the lower court’s decision, the Fourth Circuit stated, “lodging complaints about the quality of interpreters could be a valid protected activity; viewed objectively, Pearlman’s behavior was disrespectful and over-the-top; Pearlman’s coworkers were offended by his behavior, and he does not dispute that such extreme conduct—insubordination, poor workplace demeanor, or angry outbursts—can constitute a legitimate and non-discriminatory basis for taking an adverse employment action.” Pearlman’s speculative assertions alone were not enough to infer that NOAA’s reasons were pretextual.