When terminating an employee, employers often believe that “more is better” and multiple reasons should be given for a discharge. However, adopting this approach can lead to problems for the employer if a wrongful termination suit is filed as demonstrated in a recent case from Illinois. As an employer, you really only need to have one good reason to fire your employee.
In Smizer v. Community Mennonite Early Learning Center, the employer operated an early learning center and discovered that one of its teachers had made inappropriate postings on his Facebook page. The employer terminated the teacher maintaining that the posting was the reason for his termination. The teacher claimed that he was actually fired because he was tardy and did not maintain a clean classroom.
In his lawsuit, he alleged discrimination, since similarly-situated female employees were also tardy and kept equally messy classrooms but were not fired from their jobs. The teacher sought to compel the employer to produce documents that would allow him to demonstrate that female teachers were guilty of these same infractions. The employer responded that such evidence was not relevant because the teacher was fired for posting a “troubling” comment about co-workers on his Facebook page.
The court found that the teacher had provided “ample documentation” showing that the Facebook posting may not have been the real reason for the termination. The employer claimed at various times that there were other reasons for terminating the teacher including his tardiness and lack of cleanliness.
In Title VII cases, discrimination may be established by proving that the employer “shifted its justification” for terminating the employee. In other words, by changing or providing multiple reasons for a termination, a jury could infer that the employer had an unlawful motive. Because evidence of a “shifting justification” is admissible at trial, the requested documents were deemed discoverable and the employer was required to produce them.
There are important lessons to be learned from this case. First, an employer should not operate under the assumption that it should pile on as many reasons for a termination as possible. If you have a good reason to terminate an employee, stick to that reason. If you identify other reasons in connection with the termination, you may open the door for discovery and give the plaintiff another means to manufacture a discrimination claim.
There may be cases where an employee has a long history of performance issues that have developed over a long period of time. Certainly, all of these performance issues would be relevant to the employer’s decision, however, the real reason for the termination is the “final event” that took place and prompted the discharge. In other words, employers should limit the reasons for the termination to the real motivating reason and not “muddy the water” by providing multiple rationales for the discharge. Keep in mind that proving one reason is easier than proving multiple reasons in the event a wrongful termination suit is filed.