In her May 2021 federal lawsuit, terminated employee Amy Cooper sued her former employer, investment firm Franklin Templeton, for race and gender discrimination. According to Cooper, her employer fired her without thoroughly investigating an incident in which she felt her safety at risk. She accuses them of turning her situation into a “racial flashpoint” by firing her and subsequently tweeting, “We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton.” Cooper’s lawsuit demands that compensate her for lost wages, emotional distress, attorney’s fees and punitive damages.”
Franklin Templeton’s managers and forty million others watched the video shot by a birdwatcher that Ms. Cooper confronted in May 2020 in the Ramble area of Manhattan’s Central Park, a protected wildlife area. The video shows a Caucasian woman holding up her dog’s leash and pointing her finger at Christian Cooper (no relation), an African American man who says to her, “Please don’t come close to me.” When Cooper tells the man, a Harvard educated science editor and bird watcher that she’ll call the cops, he tells her to please do so.
Ms. Cooper then says, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She dials 911, says she and her dog are being threatened by an African American man. She then raises her voice to a hysterical pitch adding, “please send the cops immediately.” This incident could have turned tragic if the police had rushed in amped up by Cooper’s hysteria.
The birdwatcher appears to characterize the situation accurately, describing it as a conflict between a birder and a woman who walks her unleashed dog in an area where signs require that dogs be leashed. In an interview with Gayle King for CBS News, Christian Cooper says Amy Cooper “pulled the pin on the race grenade” and lobbed it at him.
After Franklin Templeton’s managers fired Cooper and explained they didn’t tolerate racism, Cooper flung the charge back at them, saying she wouldn’t have been fired except for her race (Causacian) and gender (female). EXCEPT, she wasn’t fired for her gender or race. She was fired for actions that appeared racist and brought negative publicity against her employer.
The takeaway for employers? Fired employees can sue and often do. Employers need to carefully weigh evidence before terminating an employee or making statements about their decision.
What about Cooper’s claim that her company failed to properly investigate? According to attorney Jonathan Segal wrote in a Tweet that the company investigated when “It watched and listened to the video. NO need to interview the employee. Her comments were blatantly racist. No defense to the indefensible.”1
Fisher Broyles attorney Eric Meyer noted in his post that “Although Ms. Cooper criticizes the quality of her employer’s investigation, she admits her employer interviewed her and watched the video.”
Attorney Jon Hyman provides a pragmatic guideline for employers struggling with similar situations. “As long as Franklin Templeton has an honest belief in the reasons for its termination based on an investigation and it doesn’t have a history of not firing similarly situated employees under similar circumstances, the termination decision should be protected. Her lawsuit reeks of publicity whoring.”2
Says labor and employment law consultant and HR blogger Suzanne Lucas, “The law does not require employers to conduct FBI-level investigations and gain enough evidence to convict someone of a crime before terminating. The honest belief standard is a good one to remember when you are conducting investigations. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the person behaved inappropriately. You need an honest belief and consistency in the punishment application.”3
What’s the probable outcome? According to attorneys Segal, Meyer and Hyman, Cooper will likely lose her wrongful termination lawsuit. The open question—will their tweet cost them?
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