Carolyn Wheeler Quoted on Amazon GC’s Leaked Comments about Fired Employee

April 8, 2020

Katz Banks Kumin senior counsel Carolyn Wheeler was quoted in a Corporate Counsel article, “Amazon General Counsel’s Leaked Comments Could Fuel Retaliation, Race Discrimination Claim.”

Amazon created a stir when it fired Chris Smalls, a worker at the company’s Staten Island facility who organized a walkout to protest the unsafe working conditions at the warehouse. On March 30, the date of the firing, New York Attorney General Letitia James criticized the decision, called on the National Labor Review Board to investigate, and was herself looking into “all legal options.”

The scandal grew a few days later when notes from an Amazon meeting were leaked, and General Counsel David Zapolsky was found to have insulted Smalls, allegedly saying that he is not “smart or articulate.”

According to Ms. Wheeler, those statements may create liability for Amazon for not only wrongful termination and retaliation, but potentially for race discrimination as well – “It’s one of the most ignorant things I’ve ever seen a company counsel say.”

While Amazon claims that they fired Smalls because he violated policy by showing up at work after potentially being exposed to COVID-19, Ms. Wheeler doubts this explanation would be legally sufficient.

“What any employer, not just Amazon, would have to prove to show that this wasn’t in retaliation is that they’re firing everybody who disobeys any order they give about reporting symptoms, or staying home or social distancing,” Ms. Wheeler said. “I just doubt that they [Amazon] could show that. The timing just makes it incredibly suspicious.”  

While Zapolsky issued a statement about the meeting notes, Ms. Wheeler dismissed them as a “non-apology.” And given the notes can be verified, they could provide a basis for a racial aspect to the employment claim.

“You could get into a really ugly, in-depth study of disparate discipline affecting African Americans or other minorities more than white workers.”

Read the full story here.

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