Appeals court revives discrimination lawsuit against Evergreen Packaging

LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge erred when he dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed by an employee of Evergreen Packaging Inc. in Jefferson County, a federal appeals court said Monday.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ordered a new hearing for Oren Jones, who filed the lawsuit after he was suspended from his job as operator at the Groundwood Public Mill until he completed an anger management course. The appeals court said there was enough evidence for a jury to consider Jones’ lawsuit.

Jones, who is black, was supervisor of five men at the plant. On two occasions one of the employees, identified as Jeff Conner, “took actions that caused Jones to be sprayed with water,” but Conner claimed the incidents were accidental. After the second incident both men received written counseling, according to decision.

On May 8, 2010, Conner’s grinder jammed and Jones asked him to fix it. Conner approached Jones while holding a wooden pole with a metal hook attached to it and stopped about eight feet away, moving the pole as if he were going to hit Jones with it, according to Monday’s appeals court decision.

Jones reported the incident, and Evergreen Packaging’s investigation ultimately concluded that the Conner’s actions did not threaten Jones’ life.

Two days later, Jones was speaking with two other employees he supervised about a meeting he was to attend with Conner and their human resources representative. According to Jones, one of the employees he was talking with said Conner had said that Jones “might go postal” if he were fired.

One of the employees, however, recalled a different conversation with Jones. He said Jones said that if he were fired he would “just walk up to people and go bang,” and then mimicked pulling a trigger. The employee also said Jones said he would “just go postal.”

Jones denied making any threats but was placed on administrative leave without benefits and told he could not return to work until he had completed workplace anger classes and signed a last-chance agreement.

While suspended, Jones was evaluated by a doctor, who said he did not present a threat of workplace violence. Jones later was reinstated after he complied with the conditions.

Jones later filed the discrimination lawsuit in federal court, but a judge ruled that Evergreen Packaging “had proffered a legitimate reason for disciplining Jones, and that (Jones) could not establish that the given reason was a pretext for discrimination.”

In a unanimous order, a three-judge panel of the appeals court reversed the judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that “Jones established a prima facie case of discrimination, as he is a member of a protected class, nothing indicated he was not qualified, EPI suspended him without pay or benefits, and EPI’s more favorable treatment of Conner could give rise to an inference of discrimination.”