In an unpublished opinion, the 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reminded employers of the importance of acting consistently with written policies, and of documenting that action. Coleman v. Blockbuster, Inc., 3d Circ., No. 08-4056, November 17, 2009. In that case, the Court upheld summary judgment in favor of an employer on the basis of the company’s ability to support its proffered “legitimate business reason” for the termination of a company manager for closing a store early and leaving the premises for a family emergency.

Tyra Coleman, an African American female, was hired by Blockbuster in September 2003 and was promoted to the position of store manager a few months later. However, after a series of disciplinary actions, Coleman was fired on June 22, 2004. In April 2004, Coleman had received two written “Corrective Action Reports” (CARs) for her store’s poor operational performance. On June 11, she received a third CAR when she missed a mandatory team meeting, and brought her two-year-old grandson to work with her. The third CAR was treated as a last chance agreement and read, in part, “Failure to improve will result in termination of employment.” On June 15, 2004, Coleman closed the store early and left the premises, ostensibly because of a medical emergency involving her minor son. Her employment was terminated the following week.

Coleman ultimately filed a lawsuit, claiming that the actual reason for her termination was race discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Blockbuster; that decision was upheld on appeal.

Employment discrimination claims typically are analyzed under a “burden shifting” framework which requires an employer to offer a legitimate business reason for its action. In this case, Blockbuster argued that it acted pursuant to its written policy of progressive discipline. Coleman countered that the company acted “too harshly” when it fired her for her son’s emergency, and asserted that such harshness was an indication that the firing was racially motivated.

The Third Circuit pointed to the fact that whether or not Coleman believed her termination to have been “harsh,” she was unable to demonstrate that Blockbuster treated her less favorably than other, non-minority employees. To the contrary, the Court found that “Blockbuster came forward with solid evidence to demonstrate that the reason for Coleman’s termination was her dereliction of duty.” The Court pointed out that the company’s operating procedures allow the company certain discretion in its disciplinary measures, including the application of “more stringent penalties” for an employee – like Coleman – who already is in the progressive disciplinary system at the time of an additional infraction. While Coleman disputed certain factual evidence, she was unable to show any evidence that even suggested that her termination was motivated by her race, and not by her “dereliction of duty,” as stated by the company.

There is no doubt that Blockbuster’s documentation of its disciplinary actions, and its compliance with its progressive disciplinary policy (which gave it broad discretion to accelerate disciplinary measures when deemed appropriate) were the keys to its success against Coleman’s claims of discrimination in this case.