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Gender discrimination claims revived for grocery worker

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Discrimination

A federal appeals court has reinstated gender discrimination charges filed by a supermarket supervisor who was terminated for serving stale cake to her co-workers, then denied post-termination health care benefits.

Katie Mayes, a single mother with seven children, was hired by Boise, Idaho-based WinCo Holdings Inc. in its Idaho Falls store in 1999 and promoted to “person in charge,” where she supervised a night shift freight crew in 2006, according to Friday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in Katie Mayes et al. v. WinCo Holdings Inc.

Ms. Mayes was told when she first became supervisor she could take cakes from the store bakery to motivate her workers when they stayed past the end of their shifts.  In 2007, she was told she should take only stale cakes, according to the ruling.

At about this time, she began experiencing difficulties with Dana Steen, the general manager, who replaced her as chair of the store’s safety committee with a male employee, with the explanation “a male would be better in that position.”

Another employee also told Ms. Mayes that Ms. Steen had said she did not like that “a girl” was running the freight crew.

In early 2011, Ms. Steen criticized Ms. Mayes because Ms. Mayes had children and could not stay late or come in on her days off, although similar comments were not made to a male employee who sometimes also left early to care for his children.

On July 7, 2011, bakery management reported someone had taken a fresh cake from the store’s bakery. A videotape showed a male employee taking cake on July 8.  Ms. Mayes said she had only given the employee permission to take stale cakes.

Both the male employee and Ms. Mayes were fired later that day, with Ms. Mayes fired on the grounds of theft and dishonesty.  She was also presented with a document banning her from WinCo property for 100 years. It was unclear who made the decision to fire her, according to the ruling.

Ms. Mayes was subsequently denied health care benefits under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act because she was fired for “gross misconduct.” She was also denied credit for accrued vacation.

Ms. Mayes was replaced at WinCo by a man who had only one month of freight crew experience and no supervisory experience with the company, according to the ruling

Ms. Mayes filed suit, charging gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as a claim under COBRA and wage claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state law.

The U.S. District Court in Boise granted WinCo summary judgment dismissing the case. A three-judge appeals court panel unanimously reinstated all charges on Friday.

Ms. Mayes “offered ample direct evidence of discriminatory animus,” said the ruling.

“Multiple employees testified that it was a common, accepted practice — rather than an offense punished by termination — for (persons in charge) to take cakes to the break room,” said the ruling. The other freight crew supervisor stated he also understood supervisors could take stale cakes, the ruling said.

“That WinCo purportedly fired Mayes for following a practice described by some witnesses as ‘common’ and that another (person in charge) thought was authorized is specific and substantial evidence that WinCo’s proffered explanation for her termination is not believable,” said the ruling.

“Mayes could not have stolen a cake that she had permission to take.  Nor could management have reasonably thought that Mayes lied about having permission if they knew that (persons in charge) were allowed to use stale cakes to motivate employees.

“Additionally, Mayes presented evidence that WinCo replaced her with a less qualified male employee,” said the ruling, in reinstating all her charges and remanding the case for further proceedings.