Publix exonerated in trucker’s discrimination lawsuit
December 4, 2020
A former truck driver trainee for Publix Super Markets lost his appeal in a discrimination claim after a federal appeals panel determined he was fired for lying about a minor crash near a dock and not because of his race.
On Nov. 20, a panel for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an Alabama federal district court’s decision to dismiss a case between Publix and a former truck driver trainee, Pape Tamba. In his complaint filed in March 2018, Tamba claimed he was fired because he is black. However, an Alabama federal court dismissed the case after hearing more of the story.
Driver’s claim of discrimination
According to the complaint, Tamba began working for Publix in May 2015 in Florida before being promoted to a truck driver trainee in December 2016. Tamba was then promoted to truck driver after three months of training.
In April 2017, Publix transferred Tamba to McCalla, Ala., as a truck driver. Allegedly, a dispatch superintendent mocked Tamba for his accent and repeatedly asked him where he is from. Other management staff treated Tamba similarly, the complaint alleges. One manager questioned how Tamba became a trucker, stating it takes 10 years to be promoted to trucker under Publix’s career path.
Around May 2017, Tamba was demoted from truck driver to truck driver trainee. Consequently, his wage was reduced from $21.85 per hour to $19.80 per hour. A day after questioning the cut, Tamba’s pay was further reduced to $16.79 per hour, according to the complaint.
Tamba filed two discrimination complaints with Publix’s human resources department. He never received a response.
In June 2017, Tamba was told to resubmit an FMLA form, which he originally submitted within the previous six months. He was informed he would be fired if not resubmitted over an absence. Three days later, Tamba was fired for being dishonest about reporting a workplace incident. Tamba argued he properly reported the incident and took responsibility for the minor crash. He contended he was fired for discriminatory reasons, citing past reviews showing “extremely good performance over the last year.”
Publix’s disputes recollection of events
According to the appellate opinion, a mistake was made when Tamba and Publix representatives signed the job offer for truck driver trainee. Although both parties understood he was to be hired as a trainee, the form erroneously stated he was a truck driver, not trainee.
Truck drivers are paid $21.85 per hour, whereas trainees are paid $16.79 per hour. Publix corrected the mistake around the same time of the alleged discrimination in April 2017.
Regarding the workplace incident, Tamba had backed his tractor-trailer into a dock, which was caught on surveillance camera. Tamba shut off the engine and exited the tractor. However, he forgot to set the parking brake. Consequently, his truck rolled into another tractor-trailer, damaging both vehicles. After observing the damage, Tamba backed up his truck into the loading dock. He then entered the other truck and moved it to another location in the facility. Forty minutes later, Tamba drove back to the other trailer that was damaged, realigned the damaged trailer and backed it into place.
In his report of the incident, Tamba stated he was doing a post-trip inspection when he discovered the damage. He went on to state he “may have hit something or I was hit by someone.” Supervisors then relayed that information to the manager, restating that Tamba had discovered damage of which he was unaware until the inspection.
After reviewing surveillance camera footage, Publix determined that Tamba was dishonest about his incident report. Based on the employee handbook, dishonesty is punishable by termination.
The district court found that Tamba did not offer circumstantial evidence that Publix fired him because of race or national origin discrimination. Although Tamba offered examples of other similarly situated drivers who were not fired, the court determined those examples were either incomparable or the evidence was insufficient. The appeals court agreed. LL