Employer documented, investigated, and won
Darren, an 25-year employee, reported that Charles, a coworker, allegedly touched him improperly while at work. Darren reported the incident and met with human resources a few days later. To complicate matters, the incident resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder for Darren, for which he began taking FMLA leave.
While he was on FMLA leave, Darren ran into Charles on or near the worksite. Darren brought up the incident, but Charles made no response. The court opinions did not elaborate on this communication between Darren and Charles, but Charles subsequently claimed to the employer that Darren had threatened him.
A few days later, the employer closed Darren’s complaint against Charles without taking action against Charles. The complaint had been open for 54 days.
Fast forward a few weeks, when the employer told Darren it would review Charles’ complaint against Darren. Two days after this review, it sent Darren a termination letter. The letter informed Darren that he had violated the company’s rules of conduct due to threatening behavior or causing disturbance, and harassment or unwelcome behavior in relation to the incident between Darren and Charles while Darren was on leave. In the two days between the review and Darren’s receipt of the termination letter, Darren’s doctor had recommended the extension of his FMLA leave.
Darren sued, arguing that his termination the day after his doctor sent a recommendation for an extension of his FMLA leave was retaliation. The employer, on the other hand, cited the threat Darren made against Charles as the reason for the termination.
Darren’s threat might have been enough for some employers to terminate immediately, but this employer launched an investigation. While there was little time between Darren’s leave extension request and his termination, the Appeals Court found that the employer had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination – the threat against Charles. In court, Darren failed to prove that the reason was pretext.
The fact that the employer didn’t make a knee-jerk reaction to the threat, but rather, investigated the situation, including examining video evidence of the event, interviewing those involved, and determining that the behavior violated company policy, likely went a long way in helping the court come to its conclusion.
As with any case that employers might face, having strong documentation and carefully examining the situation almost always helps a strong defense, even if a termination occurs close to an employee exercising his or her FMLA rights.
Darby v. Temple University, Third Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 18-3046, December 4, 2019.
The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content. This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.