Trial Proper for Discrimination Claim by Supervisor Who Took Cake from Store Bakery

A grocery store supervisor may proceed to trial on gender discrimination and COBRA claims after being terminated for taking a stale cake from the bakery.  In Mayes v. WinCo Holdings, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment on the former employee’s claim that her termination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the denial of COBRA benefits was improper because she had not engaged in gross misconduct.
The employee, Katie Mayes, worked at a WinCo grocery store for twelve years.  She supervised employees on the night-shift freight crew just before her termination in July of 2011 for taking a stale cake from the bakery and sharing it with coworkers in the break room.  Upon investigation, Mayes told loss prevention workers that management had previously authorized her actions.  She was subsequently terminated for theft and dishonesty, and denied COBRA benefits because her actions amounted to gross misconduct under company policy.  Disagreeing with this decision, Mayes filed suit claiming that the basis for termination was pretextual for the company’s plan to put a man in charge of the freight crew and that her COBRA benefits were therefore improperly denied.  The company filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss all claims, and the lower court granted the motion.  Mayes appealed.
In reversing the lower court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that Mayes had raised questions of material fact regarding whether her termination violated Title VII.  The record raised questions regarding whether a former store manager gave Mayes permission to offer bakery cakes to motivate her overnight crew, and whether it was common practice to take cakes from the bakery to the break room.  Mayes presented evidence that the current store manager made comments suggesting that she did not like having a female in charge of the night-shift freight crew and in other roles at the store.  The record showed that Mayes was replaced by a male employee on the store’s safety committee, and her position as supervisor was filled by a male employee who had one month of freight crew experience and no supervisory experience at WinCo.  The comments and actions, which the court considered to be direct evidence of discriminatory animus, raised genuine questions of material fact that justified trial on the Title VII claim.  Because the denial of COBRA benefits was contingent on the Company’s finding that Mayes’ theft and dishonesty constituted gross misconduct, the court also concluded that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding Mayes’ COBRA claim.  As such, trial was proper in this matter and the lower court decision was reversed.