Labor & Employment Law

Lawyer's Poems Nix Discrimination Case

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An in-house intellectual property lawyer in the Worcester, Mass., office of a Pennsylvania company apparently wrote his way out of a job by sending four anonymous “sexually tinged” poems to a co-worker.

Although David Bennett denied that he did so, company officials hired a private investigator to look into the co-worker’s suspicions that Bennett, who is British, penned the poems, which had characteristic British spelling of certain words to a Saint-Gobain Corp. co-worker. A search of his office turned up copies of other poems, and a handwriting expert concluded that it was “highly probable” that Bennett, then in his early sixties, was, in fact, the author of the ones his co-worker received, recounts the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a recent opinion (PDF). Hence, a company executive at Saint-Gobain fired him.

Bennett subsequently sued for age discrimination, among other claims. But the 1st Circuit earlier this month upheld a trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the company and two supervisory workers named as defendants. Among other reasons why, the executive at Saint-Gobain who opted to give Bennett the boot apparently did so based on his reasonable belief that the IP attorney authored them, the panel writes. Thus, whether or not Bennett actually was the author was “largely beside the point,” the panel wrote. “(W)hat counts is whether the decision-maker … believed the plaintiff to be the author and, if so, whether he acted on that belief in deciding to send the plaintiff packing.”

The appellate opinion didn’t delve into the “exegetic account” of the specifics of the situation. However, an earlier federal district court decision says that “(t)he poems were not explicitly sexual, but strongly suggested that the writer had a romantic interest in” the recipient. Bennett v. Saint-Gobain Corp., 453 F. Supp. 2d 314 (D. Mass. 2006).

It also gives a more detailed account of a supervisory meeting with Bennett about the poems received by the co-worker: Accused of sending them, “Bennett responded that he did not write poetry,” the opinion states. Shown the poems, “Bennett denied writing them. Bennett told (an investigator) that he could freely search his office. (The investigator) did so, and discovered a number of handwritten poems. Bennett admitted that he was the author of some of them, but stated that they were written to his wife.”

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