A shoe store clerk who was fired after inadvertently giving a receipt containing a racial slur to a black customer has the right to sue her former employer for defamation, a federal appeals court ruled.
Friday’s decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Kansas City, Missouri, revived part of a lawsuit by Jessica Cockram against Genesco Inc., owner of the Journeys store in Overland Park, Kansas, where she had worked.
The case arose from an Oct. 17, 2008, incident in which Cockram, who according to her lawyer is now 22, had entered a generic “555-5555” phone number into her cash register to speed up the customer’s return of a pair of shoes.
She had not known that a former employee had programmed the store’s database to associate that phone number with the slur and with a faked customer address that made references to “white power” and Adolf Hitler. Cockram signed the receipt without noticing the slur and gave the receipt to the customer.
After the case drew media attention, Genesco fired Cockram and issued a statement that it was “shocked and sickened” at what happened. It later clarified that statement after learning that another employee may have been involved, and said “inappropriate references were entered by employees” into the database.
Though Cockram was not named in Genesco’s statements, she said they defamed her and invaded her privacy. She also said that after the first statement, she received threats and was forced to move and temporarily put her daughter in her parents’ care.
A federal judge dismissed her lawsuit in April 2011. But the three-judge appeals court panel said Genesco’s statements carried a “sting” that could lead people to believe that Cockram intentionally used the slur and was among those responsible for the database entries.
“A reasonable jury could conclude that Genesco’s statements were false, (and) that they harmed Cockram’s reputation,” Judge Raymond Gruender wrote for the panel.
Claire McCall, a Genesco spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Daniel Curry, a lawyer for Cockram, said: “Our client is pleased that she will have a chance to clear her name in court.” Curry said his client now lives in Michigan.
Genesco is based in Nashville, Tennessee. It operates close to 2,400 stores, including Journeys, Lids and Johnston & Murphy outlets.
The case is Cockram v. Genesco Inc., 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-2027.