A longtime meatpacking plant worker who was terminated after sending a profane text to his plant manager was unable to convince Iowa’s highest court that the real reason for his discharge was unlawful age bias.
For a long period of time, David Feeback enjoyed a prosperous tenure as an employee of a Swift Pork Company plant in Iowa.
He began as a production worker in 1988, working his way up the corporate ladder to a middle management position as a cut floor supervisor.
In 2015, when he was 60, he held the supervisor position. That’s when things started to go bad.
Unsafe conditions alleged
In May of that year, Feeback complained to his direct supervisor about allegedly unsafe conditions on the work floor. Specifically, he said trolleys that transported hog carcasses were in such poor condition that carcasses were sliding off and endangering workers.
Feeback said the supervisor abruptly ended the conversation about the trolleys. He also says that when he raised the issue again a few weeks later, the supervisor hung up on him.
Feeback also says the plant manager began displaying hostility toward him, including by interrupting a bathroom break.
Things got worse from there. The supervisor accused Feeback of being “asleep at the wheel” and letting his department run
hogwild “out of control.”
On the last day of the year, things came to a head when the plant manager called off a safety meeting Feeback had scheduled and sent employees home for the holiday.
After doing so, the plant manager called Feeback and his supervisor to his office. There, he criticized Feeback, adding that another employee told him that Feeback said the plant manager was “the worst manager Feeback ever had.”’
Later that evening, Feeback sent two text messages to the plant manager. The first was a simple and straightforward “F— You!,” while the second said, “Believe who and what you want.”
The plant manager sent the messages to Swift’s HR director, who talked to Feeback about them the next morning. Feeback’s explanation: He had sent the texts to the plant manager by mistake; they were intended for someone else.
Why didn’t he rescind the profane text or contact the plant manager to explain? In response to those questions, Feeback said he did not know how to rescind a text and had not yet seen the plant manager that day to talk.
5 days later …
That explanation did not fly, and five days later Swift terminated Feeback’s employment, saying it did so because of the profane text.
Feeback sued, alleging age discrimination, retaliation, harassment and wrongful termination. After he dropped his retaliation claim, a trial court ruled against him on his remaining allegations.
An intermediate appeals court then revived his age discrimination claim, saying that there was enough to keep that claim alive: namely, the brevity of Swift’s investigation into the texts; a “culture of workplace profanity” (Feeback provided the names of 73 other employees who cursed but were not disciplined); and the fact that a number of other older workers had been terminated or demoted.
High court says no go
But when the case reached the state’s highest court, it ruled that the trial court got it right when it rejected the age bias allegation.
As to the investigation into the profane text, it said Swift “did not have much to investigate.” It was undisputed that Feeback did not apologize to the plant manager or explain the alleged miscommunication. He also admitted that he rarely texted the manager, which did not back his story.
Moreover, the court explained, the question was not whether Feeback sent the texts by accident; it was whether Swift honestly believed he was insubordinate. It did, the court said.
As to the alleged culture of profanity, the court said that while there was evidence that swearing was a common occurrence at the workplace, what Feeback did went a big step further.
Not the same thing
“There is a big difference between swearing around a boss and texting ‘F— You!’ to the boss after he chewed you out,” the court explained.
Finally, the court said Feeback’s evidence about other older employees being subjected to adverse job actions was not enough.
The takeaway: The use of profanity by employees can support disciplinary action against them – and the fact some level of profanity is tolerated does not give employees a green light to use it on an unlimited basis without fear of disciplinary repercussions.
Feeback v. Swift Pork Co., No. 20-1467 (Iowa 3/31/23).