Terminated for pulling knife on employee, supervisor loses appeal

Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau Jul. 13, 2009, 6:48am

SHERMAN -- After working for J C Penney for more than 20 years, Darlene Crouch was terminated in 2005 for, among other issues, threatening an employee with a knife.

After an argument with an employee about reading e-mails, Crouch picked up a pocketknife that was laying on a desk and pointed it at the employee, telling him to read the document.

Crouch denied threatening anyone and argues she lost her job due to taking FMLA approved absences.

After co-workers testified to Crouch's behavior, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Schell sided with J C Penney and dismissed Crouch's claims. The final judgment, entered in March 2008, ordered all costs taxed against Crouch.

Crouch appealed the decision but the appeal was denied by a recent unpublished opinion, in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision, granting summary judgment in favor of JC Penney.

Darlene Crouch filed the original lawsuit against J C Penney Corporation, Inc. on March 16, 2006, in the Sherman Division of the Eastern District of Texas.

The plaintiff began her employment with the company in 1983 and at the time of termination, she was working in the Store Systems Technical Support Center located in Plano as a support supervisor.

According to Crouch, she suffered from chronic bronchitis, which caused her to take sick leave and spend time off work. Due to the condition, she applied for and received FMLA.

Shortly after returning to work after almost two weeks off due to bronchitis, Crouch was called into her supervisor's office, "counseled about her attendance," and placed on a "development plan."

The development plan detailed Crouch's absence including her days of FMLA approved absences. The plan also mentioned other performance-related problems, such as Crouch not following instructions for implementing new procedures and confronting her staff without adequately researching their work.

Crouch filed a formal written complaint to human resources about the development plan and its inclusion of those absences.

The plaintiff was fired three months after the development plan was issued.

The corrective action report stated that Crouch "has acted in a threatening way towards a subordinate, made sexual comments that offended others, and made insensitive and profane comments in the workplace."

Crouch denied these allegations but an internal J C Penney investigation was conducted and found the allegations to be true. According to court documents, the investigation concluded that she "yelled, used profanity, was rude and unprofessional, confronted employees about their behavior aggressively and in front of their peers, and told inappropriate stories about violence in her own family and her own violent behavior."

In the first amended complaint, the plaintiff argues that J C Penney violated the Family and Medical Leave Act, violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, violated provisions of the American's with Disabilities Act and intentionally committed defamation.

The Court of Appeals opinion found that Crouch's claims fail as J C Penney had articulated a "a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action: it received complaints about Crouch's managerial skills, conducted an investigation, confirmed that Crouch's behavior was at best unprofessional and at worst threatening, and decided to terminate her for those reasons."

Further, the appeals court said that the evidence demonstrated that J C Penney undertook a thorough investigation and correspondence between management indicates no reflection on the development plan or her use of FMLA leave.

Originally, the plaintiff was seeking damages for past and future lost earnings and benefits, loss of earning capacity, pecuniary losses, emotional pain and suffering, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish, emotional and physical distress, attorney fees and court costs.

Dallas attorney John H. Crouch IV of the law firm Kilgore and Kilgore PLLC represented the plaintiff.

U. S. District Judge Richard A. Schell presided over the litigation.

Case No 4:06cv00113

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