Chipotle can't escape former employee's discrimination suit; Company says he was fired for poor performance

By Charmaine Little | Oct 10, 2018

PHILADELPHIA - On Sept. 20, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.’s motion for summary judgment on a former employee’s claims the popular eatery discriminated and retaliated against him.

Mark Matero, who worked as an area manager and supervised a number of restaurants in the Philadelphia area, accused Chipotle of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. He also filed claims under the Pennsylvania Humans Relations Act and the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinances. 

He sued the restaurant claiming it fired him on his first day back at work from leave for back surgery. While Chipotle attempted to get summary judgment on the issue, the district court denied Chipotle’s request.

The court first determined Matero had to prove he had a disability protected under the ADA, that he’s a qualified individual, and that he experienced an “adverse employment action” as a result of the disability, the court stated. Chipotle disputed the last two qualifications concerning Matero, so those were the only two the court evaluated.

Chipotle said Matero wasn’t a qualified individual and noted it fired him because he didn’t train his restaurant teams correctly, he “failed miserably” to perform Chipotle’s regulations concerning food safety and dealing with cash, and that he kept low-performing workers on the payroll. 

Still, the court said Matero not only completed training but that his performance itself labeled him as a “reliable contributor.” He even earned a merit raise and bonus. Considering this, the court determined Matero is a qualified individual.

Concerning whether Matero’s disability is the reason he was fired, the court stated, “Numerous facts in the record raise an interference of discrimination.” 

For starters, his supervisor, Robert Anderson, admitted he didn’t remember giving Matero any notice that there was an issue with his performance before he left for surgery. Plus, Dismas Nyakundi, who took Anderson’s place as Matero’s supervisor while Matero was on leave, visited Matero’s restaurants during his absence and exposed multiple issues until it became obvious it was time to fire Matero. 

Still, Nyakundi never talked with Matero about his concerns. Instead, he fired him when he returned from his surgery. While Chipotle said it also fired Matero because he called an employee to come in to work two days after she vomited, allegedly violating a policy that says an employee has to take three days off for being sick, the court pointed out Nyakundi didn’t speak with Matero about it until he was firing him. The court said these issues have established Matero’s prima facie claims of discrimination.

The court next looked at prima facie concerning retaliation. It said the fact that Matero was fired on his first day returning has enough proximity to suggest retaliation under the ADA.

The court also said Matero proved he faced retaliation via the FMLA. While Chipotle said Matero never asked for FMLA leave, Matero said his petition to get time off for the surgery and recovery should have indicated to Chipotle he needed to take leave under the FMLA, and the court agreed. 

He also provided enough evidence that there was a direct connection between his leave and his firing, again, because he was first on his first day back. Plus, Matero said he asked Anderson if he needed to take a leave of absence for surgery, and Anderson said using sick and/or vacation time would be the best route. Still, Anderson said he never said that and instead claimed he referred Matero to Chipotle’s benefits team. The court said the jury can determine who’s telling the truth and denied the motion for summary judgment.

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