Human Resources News & Insights

Deaf employee complained about interpreters, then fired: Was firm at fault?

When this deaf employee raised concerns about his accommodation, he was fired. But his behavior before he complained was what stood out to a court. 

Michael Pearlman, who is deaf, was hired in June 2010 as a program analyst at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

He requested the services of an interpreter during his tenure, which NOAA provided via an outside contractor.

Over the course of his employment, Pearlman found a whopping 12 of the 14 interpreters the contractor supplied as substandard. He placed them on his “do not call” or “black-list.”

That wasn’t the only problem with Pearlman. In addition, the deputy director of the Workforce Management Office noted numerous issues with Pearlman’s behavior and performance, including:

  • taking credit for work that he didn’t do
  • acting “abrupt and demanding” and “intimidating, disrespectful or personally offensive.”
  • exhibiting “outbursts of anger and frustration when co-workers disagreed” with him
  • being “inappropriately sarcastic and verging  on hostile in tone,” and
  • sending “angry, derogatory e-mails.”

Pearlman received a warning about his conduct and agreed to try to improve his working relationship with his co-workers.

His behavior, however, continued. First, displeased with an interpreter, Pearlman –- in front of other employees, one of whom reported that she thought Pearlman was “going to explode” — “got very loud, angry, and waved [his] hand frantically telling the interpreter to ‘just go.'”

Second, he contacted the president of the outside contractor to complain that a tardy interpreter was “unacceptable” and the company president should “take corrective action to make sure this does not happen again.”

In his email, Pearlman took a hostile tone with the company president, writing that an interpreter in question was

CLEARLY on my black list of interpreters THAT ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE ASSIGNED TO ME. DO YOU REALIZE THAT A NON QUALIFIED INTERPRETER WHO WOULD BE TRANSLATING WHAT I SAY TO SENIOR MANAGEMENT IN THE WRONG WAY COULD HURT ME DURING MY PERFORMANCE REVIEW AND ASKING FOR POTENTIAL PROMOTION? I am clearly not a happy camper at all about this. This was a stressful matter that I had to take care of this morning. I had to have [a representative] call [the interpreter service] and immediately change interpreter [sic] to someone else who was OK OK [sic] and didn’t have enough time to review my materials before my meeting.

A representative of the contractor had written the company to inform her that Pearlman was a “very exacting client” whose behavior had made the interpreters uncomfortable.

Documentation saved the day

Not surprisingly, NOAA terminated Pearlman.

Pearlman sued, claiming he was terminated in retaliation for complaining about the inadequacy of the interpreter services, a reasonable accommodation to which he was entitled under law.

The court disagreed. There was a clear, nondiscriminatory reason for Pearlman’s firing, the court said: his outrageous behavior, which the company had documented thoroughly. Case closed.

Maria Danaher, writing on the Employment Law Matters blog, had the following takeaway for HR pros:

In this case, it was the employer’s written record that painted a picture of events that could not be contradicted by Pearlman’s speculations. Objective documentation, supported by witness testimony or other evidence can help to provide the basis for dismissal of an employee’s claims of retaliation, when those claims are based on speculation and unsupported evidence.

The case is Pearlman v. Pritzer.

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