A carrier terminated one of its captive agents in Colorado, claiming that he had behaved in an unprofessional manner. The agent believed his race played a role in the decision, citing a manager’s remark. After much litigation, an appellate court decided he had a valid case.
The agency had represented the carrier for more than 30 years as an independent contractor. The agent, “a Hispanic man of Mexican-American heritage,” and his wife ran the office.
In January 2017, an individual called the agent’s office and, in a “rude and disrespectful” manner, asked to be removed from the carrier’s mailing list. The agent felt compelled to hang up on him. The individual called back, and the agent hung up on him again. The individual then found the name of one of the carrier’s executives on LinkedIn. He dashed off a message to the executive complaining of the agent’s unprofessional behavior.
The executive forwarded the complaint to lower-level managers. It eventually reached a territory manager who asked an area sales manager and a district manager to investigate the incident. The district manager emailed the agent to schedule a phone call, noting that he had to report to the territory manager the next day.
While this was going on, the disgruntled individual called the agent’s office a third time. The agent was away but his wife was there. She later described the man’s conduct as “raging,” “belligerent,” and “screaming.” He allegedly said, “I’ve already called twice, and nobody’s helping me stop this mail, and being as you’re not going to fix it, I’m going to come down to the office and fix it.” After he started calling her profane names, she hung up on him.
She called the district manager to report the incident, and he asked her to email him the details. At the end of an email sent from her husband’s account, she wrote, “I’m not afraid, and we are going to be open; I carry, and if I feel threatened I will blow a hole in him the size of Uganda.” (The original grammar has been corrected for clarity.)
The investigation closed with no disciplinary action but with a reminder that the carrier expected professional conduct from its agents. However, a few months later the territory manager and a manager who reported to him learned of the email and re-opened the inquiry. They told the district manager to inform the agent that they were considering termination. He called and spoke with the wife, telling her on the phone, “It comes down to they don’t want a brown man running around— some crazy brown man running around with a gun.”
The carrier did terminate the agent, and he sued for discrimination based on his race. As evidence, he cited the “crazy brown man” comment. The carrier argued that this was inadmissible hearsay. The trial court agreed; the appellate court did not. The district manager, it ruled, was acting at the territory manager’s behest and was therefore representing the carrier. Consequently, the district manager’s statement could be attributed to the carrier, making the comment admissible evidence. The lawsuit could proceed.
This decision was rendered in August 2022 and there is no further public record. The parties may be negotiating a settlement.
Unpleasant customers, while the exception, are an unfortunate part of doing business. Handling them is a challenge for anyone. This agent may have handled the phone conversations well, but his wife’s statement in the email was ill-advised, to put it mildly. She gave the carrier an excuse to terminate the agency, and they took it.
When anyone in an agency writes an email, it is wise to remember that the email could be forwarded to anyone in the world. Those words can live forever and come back to haunt the writer. That was true in this case. The lesson: Never write something in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the evening news.