Tag Archives: termination

$9.45 Million Reasons Not To Disclose Terminations

Most employers know that terminations should not be publicized externally or internally except to those who have a legitimate need to know the information.  On April 30th a federal jury in Kentucky reinforced this rule when it found that Charter Communications must pay over $9.45 million for defaming seven former employees by telling other employees about the incident that lead to their firing.

In October 2013 Charter fired seven employees for taking printers purchased by the company to their homes.  The former employees claimed they had permission to take and keep the printers.  The former employees alleged that a month after their firing a Charter Human Resources Manager gave a PowerPoint Presentation in which he referred to the incident as “Printer-gate.”  They also alleged that the PowerPoint mentioned “Printer-gate” with one incident in which an employee allegedly used a company credit card to make personal purchases and another incident in which former employees allegedly sold illegal drugs on Charter property.  The former employees contended that the use of the term “Printer-gate”, particularly in conjunction with references to employee theft and drug dealing, implied that the employees had engaged in criminal conduct.

The jury agreed with the former employees.  The jury was particularly bothered by the company’s actions, since it awarded each former employee $1,000,000 in punitive damages.  Punitive damages are designed to punish a defendant for its wrongful conduct.  The jury also awarded each plaintiff an additional $350,000 for embarrassment, humiliation and mental anguish.

This case serves as a reminder that when you terminate an employee you should not disclose the details to anyone who does not have a legitimate need to know the information.  And those that have a legitimate need to know the information are a small group.  The failure to follow this rule could result in expensive litigation and, in a worst case scenario, you writing the employee a large check in settlement or to pay a jury’s verdict.

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Fifth Circuit Holds Title VII Protects Nursing Mothers From Being Fired For Expressing Breast Milk

Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act,  protects nursing mothers from being fired for lactating or expressing breast milk.  The plaintiff was allegedly fired after asking to use a breast pump at work.  In reaching its decision the Court held that firing someone because of lactation or breast pumping is sex discrimination.

This is a big victory for the EEOC, who brought the case on behalf of the plaintiff.  This win also highlights one of the EEOC’s priorities in its Strategic Enforcement Plan, which is to identify emerging areas in equal employment law, including pregnancy-related issues.

Most employers know that the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended in 2010 to require them to provide both a reasonable break time and a place, other than a bathroom, for an employee to express breast milk for up to a year after a child’s birth.  The Fifth Circuit has now made it clear that Title VII also protects employees who are fired for expressing breast milk.

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Lesson From Rutgers: Some Conduct Requires Immediate Termination

By now I am sure most of you have seen the video showing former Rutgers Mens’ Basketball Head Coach Mike Rice verbally and physically assaulting his players at practice.  Rice’s conduct was inexcusable and it resulted in his termination last week.  But to most everyone, the termination came too late.

Former Athletic Director Tim Pernetti first saw the video in November 2012.  But instead of firing Rice then, which Pernetti  later admitted was his first instinct, Pernetti, after consultation with  human resources and in-house counsel, suspended Rice for 3 games and fined him $50,000.  When ESPN released the video last week Rutgers had a public relations nightmare on its hands.  Pernetti and other members of Rutgers’ administration have since resigned in the wake of  the public and internal outrage.

So what can employers learn from Rutgers’ mistake?  Some conduct requires immediate termination.  If you have conducted a thorough investigation and the investigation establishes  that the employee has engaged in theft, other acts of dishonesty, fighting, or sexual assault (to name just a few) immediate termination is almost always going to be warranted.

And delaying the decision can weaken the employer’s defense if the terminated employee files suit.  If you are arguing the employee’s conduct (or poor performance) resulted in the termination, but a significant amount of time elapsed between the conduct and the termination,  you can bet that the employee’s lawyer will argue that the events are not connected.  If that case makes it to a jury, the common sense argument that the delay means the two events are not connected might just win the case for the employee.

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Facebook Vacation Pictures Support Terminating Employee on FMLA Leave

The case of Lineberry v. Detroit Medical Center is yet another example of how an employee’s use of social media can lead to termination.  Ms. Lineberry was on FMLA leave for severe back and leg pain.  But while on leave she took a vacation to Mexico and posted photographs of the trip which showed her doing things that were inconsistent with her alleged condition, such as riding in a motorboat.  Her co-workers saw these pictures and complained to the Hospital.

The Hospital confronted Ms. Lineberry who admitted that she lied about needing to use a wheelchair at the airport as she prepared to travel to Mexico.  The Hospital terminated her for her dishonesty and because of  its honest belief that she abused her FMLA leave.  Based on these facts the Court dismissed Ms. Lineberry’s claim that the Hospital fired her for taking the leave in violation of the FMLA.

Two takeaways for employers.  1. FMLA leave must be used for its intended purpose; and  2.  To rely on the “honest belief” rule an employer must conduct an investigation and point to specific facts which support its belief.

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