A handful of taco chips has landed Wal-Mart in court on a racial discrimination case. According to the Associated Press, a federal appeals court has agreed to allow a former Wal-Mart employee who claims he was fired for stealing a handful of taco chips from a fellow employee, to get his day in court. Roland Stalter was hired by Wal-Mart as an unloader on the night shift in a Wausau, WI Wal-Mart, but when he tried to “unload” a few taco chips from a bag that was left open on a counter in the employee break room, Stalter was fired. Stalter claims a Wal-Mart supervisor said this action amounted to theft and “gross misconduct”. Stalter countered that he was fired because he was black, and he filed a discrimination lawsuit in 1997. The first court Stalter went to, the U.S. District Court, dismissed the case for lack of sufficient evidence to bring it to a jury. But in late September of 1999, the 7th. Circuit US Court of Appeals in Chicago reversed the lower court ruling and said that Stalter can bring his case to trial. The Appeals court said that a white employee who also committed “gross misconduct” by lying about absenteeism, was not fired, but Stalter was fired over taco chips. “From the molehill of taco chips, Wal-Mart endeavored to make a mountain,” the court said. The court noted that Wal-Mart employees often leave food in the break room that appears to be abandoned. Stalter’s lawyer told the AP: “Even the person who left the chips out on the counter thought the incident was no big deal, and neither will the jury.” The court said Wal-Mart firing of Stalter strikes us as swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.”
Wal-Mart must surely be hoping that this Wisconsin taco chip case does not turn out like the infamous “breath mint” case that we reported earlier this year (see January 26, 1999 newsflash entry). In that Monticello, KY case, 4 Wal-Mart workers were fired for eating cashews and breath mints found in the employee lounge area. The so-called “breath mint 4” were dismissed by Wal-Mart, but it was the employees who ended up taking a bite out of their employer. The court awarded the 4 workers a total of $20 million. After the Breath Mint case, one would have thought that Wal-Mart would instruct its supervisors not to push this “candy-snitching” too far, but apparently the word didn’t filter down to the Wausau store. So this time, instead of breath mints, its taco chips, and the price to pay could make those few chips worth a lot of money to Roland Stalter. The employee lounge is becoming a very expensive place for Wal-Mart.