Reducing Risk With Comprehensive Investigations and Documentation

On February 28, 2014, a Massachusetts court dismissed a discrimination claim brought by three employees against a nursing home base in part on the employer’s detailed investigation and written record of discipline.  The case Metelus v. Wingate Healthcare, Inc., demonstrates the importance of thorough and well documented investigations and discipline.

What You Need To Know.  When faced with a discrimination claim, employers need evidence showing how employees were treated fairly and consistently.  A thorough investigation into employee misconduct and well documented disciplinary warnings will help significantly if a court has to review a termination.

In the Metelus case, three nursing assistants were terminated for refusing a supervisor’s request that they work on another floor to meet patient demand.  The nursing assistants threatened to walk off the job if ordered to change floors.  Instead of disciplining the three employees on the spot, Wingate’s Nursing Director promptly conducted a thorough investigation.  After the investigation was complete, Wingate issued detailed written warnings to each employee.

During the investigation, additional allegations of poor performance were uncovered.  The Nursing Director conducted a second investigation of these new allegations.  When the second investigation proved additional allegations of insubordination and poor patient care, the three employees were terminated.  The three employees, all of Haitian descent, sued for national origin discrimination.

While the three employees had no direct evidence of discrimination, they alleged that employees who were not Haitian were treated more favorably for similar conduct.  Specifically, the employees alleged that a non-Haitian employee was not terminated after refusing to work on a different floor.  If the company had been treating “similarly situated” non-Haitian employees more favorably, the terminated employees might have been able to prove discrimination.

Because of its thorough investigation, the company was able to prove that the three terminated employees were not treated worse than a “similarly situated” non-Haitian employee.  After a review of the detailed investigation reports and written disciplinary warnings, the court believed that the three terminated employees were guilty of much worse conduct than the employee who was not terminated.  The company had used its investigation to prove that the three terminated employees were guilty of much worse conduct and deserved termination was warranted.  Because of this, the case was dismissed.

Two key practices saved Wingate the trouble and expense of extended litigation.  First, the company conducted a thorough investigation into the allegations of misconduct.  This helped convince the court that the company took the matter seriously.  Second, the company maintained detailed disciplinary paperwork describing the misconduct of the terminated employees and of the employee who was not terminated.  This detailed written information allowed the company to justify its non-discriminatory decision to fire the three employees because it could prove their specific conduct warranted termination.

Performing thorough investigations and maintaining detailed documentation is a risk mitigation strategy that can save significant time and money if you get sued for employment discrimination.  If you need to investigate employee misconduct or are considering terminating an employee, contact EmCo Consulting, LLC to discuss this and other steps you can take to position yourself for success should an employee sue you for wrongful termination or discrimination.