Is there a line that separates an employee’s insubordinate outburst from an expression of protected conduct? Yazdian v. ConMed Endoscopic Technologies, Inc. (6th Cir. 7/14/15) suggest that the answer may be “no”.
Reza Yazdian, a former territory manager for ConMed, believed that he was being singled out because of his national origin or religion. He chose, however, to express that belief to management in a less-than-professional manner, which included becoming combative during a disciplinary meeting.
The 6th Circuit concluded that it should be up to a jury to decide whether, despite Yazdian’s “combative” style, the company nevertheless terminated him because of his expression of protected conduct.
Yazdian cites as direct evidence of retaliation that Sweatt [his manager] specifically referenced Yazdian’s protected statements as examples of insubordination. When Sweatt provided ConMed with examples of Yazdian’s communication problems and “unwillingness to accept and apply constructive coaching,” Sweatt cited Yazdian’s hostile-work-environment and discrimination comments as examples. Sweatt described Yazdian’s claim that Sweatt was “creating a hostile working environment for [him],” as “unprofessional” and “totally unacceptable.” Sweatt cited the incident when Yazdian said to Sweatt, “I guess you don’t like my race either” as an example of Yazdian’s alleged “unwillingness to accept and apply constructive coaching.” And, crucially, Sweatt testified that he made the decision to fire Yazdian immediately after this phone call in which Yazdian said the following: (1) that Yazdian was going to file a lawsuit, (2) that Sweatt was creating a hostile work environment, and (3) that Yazdian would respond to the warning letter with charges.… [T]hese documents are direct evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Sweatt believed Yazdian’s protected activity constituted insubordination, and therefore that Sweatt terminated Yazdian because of the protected statements that Yazdian had made.
Employee have a right to express protected conduct without reprisal, just as employers have the right to discipline or terminate insubordinate employees. When the expression of protected conduct swallows the alleged insubordination, you should expect most courts to do as the 6th Circuit did here, and side with the employee. Act accordingly, and be careful not to confuse protected expressions of opposition to alleged discriminatory employment practices with insubordination.