I frequently encounter employees who think that workplace rules make them bulletproof. Usually, these employees have memorized their employer’s handbook and know it better than the Human Resources staff. They then insist that any workplace action must be taken in compliance with the “rules.” And, they think that any action which contradicts the “rules” must be invalid. One employee recently learned the hard way that his insistence upon the “rules” amounted to insubordination, which justified termination of his employment. Veasy v. Sheriff of Palm Beach County, No. 17-13174, 2018 WL 3868674 (11th Cir. Aug. 14, 2018).
Wilbur Veasy was employed as a corrections officer by the Palm Beach County Sheriff for 25 years. Over the course of those 25 years, he was written-up for insubordination six times. He is African-American. On February 5, 2013, Mr. Veasy was directed to submit to a random urine drug screen. In accordance with written policy, Mr. Veasy appeared at the Sheriff’s Internal Affairs Office to submit his urine sample. But, despite the language of the written policy, the Sheriff’s Office had not accepted urine samples at Internal Affairs for more than four (4) years. Thus, upon arrival, Mr. Veasy was directed to drive his personal car to a third-party contractor’s office to submit a sample.
Mr. Veasy refused. He insisted that the Sheriff Department’s policy did not require him to drive his personal vehicle to a testing facility. Mr. Veasy requested an “official vehicle” to drive to the testing facility. A sergeant denied Mr. Veasy’s request, and ordered that Mr. Veasy drive to the testing facility. When Mr. Veasy refused, the matter was referred to the Sheriff. The Sheriff gave Mr. Veasy two options: either drive to the test site in his personal vehicle or be placed on administrative leave. Mr. Veasy responded that his “2007 red four door Tacoma is not going,” and the Sheriff placed him on administrative leave. Mr. Veasy was ultimately terminated for refusing to comply with a direct order and for refusing to submit to a random drug screen.
Mr. Veasy sued for race discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit assumed that he could prove a basic (prima facie) case of discrimination. But, Mr. Veasy could not rebut the Sheriff’s legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for termination: insubordination. Mr. Veasy tried to argue that he had not actually violated a work rule. After all, the Sheriff’s written policy said to arrive at Internal Affairs ready to submit a sample, and he did just that. The Eleventh Circuit was not persuaded. The issue was not whether Mr. Veasy violated the written rule, but whether he was insubordinate when he refused two direct orders to travel to the third-party contractor’s office. The Eleventh Circuit found he was insubordinate, and affirmed dismissal of his discrimination claim.
Overzealous employers might be tempted to read Veazy to permit them to terminate an employee for insubordination any time the employee refuses a direct order. To quote Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.” There are numerous factors that need to be considered before any employee is terminated. Probably, the most important factor is treatment of other similar employees who refuse direct orders. So, if an employer only terminates insubordinate employees in a protected class, then the termination might be impermissible. Veazy is more of a cautionary tale for employees to be careful about their insistence on work rules.