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Videotaped lobby fight sinks hotel manager's retaliation claim



Employment Practices Workers Comp Coverage More + Less -

A hotel manager who was recorded fighting with a man in the hotel's lobby was reasonably fired over the altercation and therefore can't claim that her employer terminated her employment for filing a workers compensation claim, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

Amy Witham was a general manager for Intown Suites Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky, according to court records. In November 2012, she was working at the hotel's front desk when a man approached and told her that a vending machine in the lobby had given him a bottle of water when he pushed a button for a can of root beer.

Hotel security cameras showed that Ms. Witham asked the man for his hotel room number, and he responded that he was not staying at the hotel, according to court filings. Ms. Witham told the man that the vending machine was for guests only and that he could be ticketed for trespassing by being on the premises without paying for a room.

Camera footage showed that the man murmured something inaudible, “but evidently inflammatory,” which prompted Ms. Witham to tell the man to leave, records show. The man and Ms. Witham then began shouting at each other, and the man told her she was “lucky” that he hadn't come across the hotel desk counter to hit her.

Ms. Witham told the man to “come across the counter, cause it's on camera now, honey,” and the man returned toward the desk, according to filings. The man climbed onto the counter in front of Ms. Witham, hurled several expletives at her and knocked her computer to the ground, and Ms. Witham ordered the hotel's manager-in-training to call 911.

Ms. Witham was then seen in camera footage blocking the man from exiting the hotel, slamming the front door shut after the man tried to pull it open, records show. The man pushed Ms. Witham into a wall, and she charged 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, flung open the door, and fled — leaving the match that lit this conflagration (an unwanted bottle of water) behind,” the court ruling reads.

Ms. Witham went to the hospital to be treated for head and hand injuries that occurred during the fight, records show. Intown's general counsel and CEO viewed the security camera footage a couple days after the altercation, agreed with two other executives that Ms. Witham had acted unprofessionally, and placed her on administrative leave.

Ms. Witham called Intown's benefits department after Thanksgiving to set up a workers comp claim, according to court filings. Four Intown executives met that same day and unanimously decided to fire Ms. Witham for her conduct during the lobby fight.

Ms. Witham sued Intown in Kentucky court, alleging that Intown had fired her in retaliation for filing a workers comp claim, filings show. Intown removed the lawsuit to the U.S. District Court in Louisville in November 2013, which issued a summary judgment in June 2015 in favor of Intown. Ms. Witham appealed.

'Belligerent and unsafe'

A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit unanimously upheld the District Court ruling on Thursday, finding that camera footage showed that Ms. Witham's firing was not retaliatory.

“Happily for us (and unhappily for Witham), we have video footage of the incident that validates the company's version of what happened,” the ruling reads.

Kentucky law says that injured workers must show that their workers comp claim was a “substantial and motivating factor” in their dismissal in order to file a retaliation claim, the court said.

Ms. Witham argued that Intown executives knew that she would be filing a workers comp claim prior to firing her. But the court said evidence showed that she was fired because of her behavior, not the claim.

“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,” the court ruling reads. “And she did all of this in front of another employee whom she was supposed to be training. The security footage bears out the hotel's version of events, confirming Witham's belligerent and unsafe conduct.”

It's unclear from court filings whether Ms. Witham received workers comp benefits for her injuries related to the fight.