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Brawl over water bottle: Court says firing not retaliation for workers’ comp claim

Lobby video shows a hotel manager escalated an incident with a man who complained that a vending machine gave him the wrong drink. Shouting turned into a physical fight, injuring the manager who filed for comp, then was fired. Was the firing justified, or was it retaliation for filing the comp claim?

Sometimes in workplace lawsuits, the exact events that happened aren’t entirely known.

Not in the case of Amy Witham.

As noted by U.S. Sixth Circuit judges in their opinion, “happily for us (and unhappily for Witham)” video footage shows exactly what happened here.

On Nov. 19, 2012, Witham, the general manager of Intown Suites, Louisville, KY, was at the facility’s front desk training a new manager.

A man walked up to the front desk complaining that a vending machine outside the lobby had given him a bottle of water instead of a can of root beer.

Witham asked what the man’s room number was, but he said he wasn’t staying there.

“Just a head’s up, that’s for guests only,” Witham replied. “You could actually get ticketed for trespassing by the police if you’re over here and you’re not a tenant, just so you know.” Witham said she’d pass along the complaint to the vending machine company.

The man murmured something and Witham responded, “Well, you’re not a tenant here, so you’re not gonna talk like that in my office, and you can go ahead and leave.”

Witham and the man began shouting, and she asked him to leave a few more times.

Then she said “bye” sarcastically and made an exaggerated waving gesture three times as the man approached the door to leave.

The man said Witham was “lucky” he hadn’t come across the counter after her. Witham dared him to do that.

“Come across the counter, cause it’s on camera now, honey,” she taunted.

The man came toward Witham. More yelling. He raised himself onto the front desk and swore at Witham.

Meanwhile, Witham continued to egg him on, daring him to jump across the counter. He knocked a computer monitor to the ground, and she ordered the manager-in-training to call 9-1-1.

Witham went to the lobby door and blocked the man from leaving. He tried to open the door, but Witham jammed it shut.

The man pushed Witham into the wall, and she charged back toward him, swatting and clawing at his face. They tussled for a few seconds, and the man slammed Witham to the floor, kicked her twice and then fled.

Witham went to the hospital for injuries to her head and hand.

Let’s go to the video

A day or two after the incident, Intown’s general counsel and its CEO viewed the security footage. After consulting with two other company executives, all agreed Witham had acted unprofessionally, and they placed her on administrative leave.

A few days later, Witham started the process of filing for workers’ comp. That same day, the executives met again regarding the incident and decided to fire Witham.

Witham filed a lawsuit, claiming Intown violated the law by firing her in retaliation for filing a workers’ comp claim. Intown filed a motion for summary judgment which a district court granted. Witham appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The federal appeals court recently ruled Witham didn’t prove her charge of retaliation. The court wrote:

“By encouraging the man to jump onto her desk and by preventing him from leaving, Witham transformed a minor incident over a wrongly dispensed water bottle into a tense conversation and eventually into a physical confrontation, violating a number of company policies along the way. And she did all of this in front of another employee whom she was supposed to be training.”

The court called Witham’s conduct “belligerent and unsafe.”

Witham tried to argue that the firing was retaliatory because:

  • it didn’t happen until a week after the incident, on the same day she inquired about her workers’ comp claim
  • the hotel fired her without warning despite her spotless disciplinary record, and
  • another hotel employee had tackled the man involved in the incident outside the hotel but wasn’t fired.

The court found:

  • even though the executives knew Witham had a workers’ comp claim, it doesn’t mean they fired her for it
  • it doesn’t matter that Intown fired Witham instead of disciplining her because her infractions were serious, and
  • the video showed that, at best, the other hotel employee either bumped into the man as he fled or tried to grab him – but there was no tackling involved.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to throw out Witham’s retaliation lawsuit.

This case shows timing isn’t everything. Just because Witham was fired on the day she inquired about the workers’ comp process didn’t mean that her firing wasn’t justified.

Let us know what you think about this case in the comments.

(Amy Sue Witham v. Intown Suites Louisville Northeast LLC, U.S. Circuit Crt. 6, No. 15-5734, 3/10/16)

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