Here is a great example of how management’s poor planning (and stupidity) can really help an employee’s lawsuit against the company. The court decision discussed, (Hollingsworth v Sheriff’s Office of Winn Parish, was issued on October 3, 2013.
What You Need to Know. The key lesson from this case is that employers need to think through the reasons for a termination before taking action, provide terminated employees with accurate explanations for the termination, and make sure the companies actions remain consistent with that explanation even after the termination is complete. Do not lie to an employee about a termination because, as you will see below, the lie could come back to bite you in court.
In Winn Parish, Louisiana, Sheriff Little terminated African-American Deputy Sheriff Author Hollingsworth in 2009. (Important Point #1: Lawsuits go on forever. 4 years later and this case isn’t even to trial. Avoid lawsuits if you can.) One reason given by Sheriff Little for the termination was a reduction in force due to budget cuts. Two other deputy sheriffs were terminated at the same time. Hollingsworth sued and alleged race discrimination.
Prior to being terminated, Hollingsworth had also filed a complaint at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging that African-American sheriffs were being paid less than white sheriffs. On the day he filed the complaint, Sheriff Little called Hollingsworth into his office, interrogated him, and gave him a disciplinary warning based upon the filing of the EEOC complaint and the fact that Hollingsworth met with an attorney. (Important Point #2: Never, ever, discipline an employee for filing a complaint or speaking with an attorney. That is a sure fire way to get sued.) Hollingsworth also alleged retaliation and discriminatory pay practices in his lawsuit.
Sheriff Little filed a motion for summary judgment in hopes of getting the lawsuit dismissed. He argued that lack of budget funds warranted the terminations. Voters had recently rejected a tax increase that was intended to help the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Little argued that he could not fully staff his office once the tax increase was rejected and had to fire three Deputy Sheriffs. This proved, he argued, there was no race discrimination in Hollingsworth’s termination. Unfortunately for Sheriff Little, Hollingsworth had evidence that Sheriff Little had hired 14 new deputies before terminating Hollingsworth and 15 new deputies after terminating Hollingsworth. This evidence was sufficient to cast serious doubt on Sheriff Little’s budget cuts argument. (Important Point #3: Always give accurate explanations when terminating an employee, even if it is a hard message to deliver, because untruthful explanations are really hard to defend and make your actions look suspect.) Because Sheriff Little’s explanation was undermined by the evidence, the Court allowed the lawsuit to go forward for a trial so that a jury could hear all the evidence and determine whether or not Sheriff Little’s actions were illegal discrimination.
This case is an unusually clear example of poor planning prior to a layoff. If the Sheriff had good reasons to terminate Hollingsworth and the other two deputies, he blew it by arguing budget cuts. According to the Court, the evidence clearly showed there was enough money to hire 29 deputies in the period before and after Hollingsworth was terminated. The Sheriff’s inconsistent actions made his decision to terminate look suspicious. It gives a judge and a jury reason to think he might be discriminating. To repeat, even if Sheriff Little had good grounds to terminate Hollingsworth, by lying about the need to cut staff, Sheriff Little may have destroyed his credibility and his chance of succeeding in court.
Employers need to think through the reasons for a termination before taking action, provide terminated employees with accurate explanations for the termination, and make sure the company’s actions remain consistent with that explanation even after the termination is complete.
EmCo can help you review employee terminations before you act to make sure you have taken the steps necessary to best defend your actions in court. While employers often want to act quickly once the decision to terminate is made, it is always valuable to step back from the decision, review it with an impartial counselor, and ensure all actions are thought through and consistent. If you are considering terminating an employee, please contact EmCo to review the decision before acting.