January 19, 2011

Firing over false gun rumor costs Rochester, MN hotel $476,326.00

Posted in Breach of Contract, Contracts, Defamation, Firearms / Guns, Libel, Slander, Workplace Violence, Wrongful Termination tagged , , , , at 10:26 am by Tom Jacobson

Two weeks ago, I commented on the case of a Minnesota casino employee who was fired for bringing a gun to work (Packin’ heat at work:  Is it always employment misconduct? http://bit.ly/fSLNWC).  There, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a determination that the employee’s actions were misconduct which disqualified him from unemployment benefits.

But what if an employer fires an employee based on the mistaken belief that he brought a gun to work and threatened to kill management, his union representative and himself if things didn’t go his way?  For the Rochester, MN Marriott hotel, the mistake was very costly, for it resulted in a $476,326.00 jury verdict in favor of a discharged bellhop, Jeff Moen.  The case was Moen v. Sunstone Hotel Properties, Inc. d/b/a Marriott Hotel.

The gun rumor started circulating in October, 2007.  When management learned of it the next day, they took immediate steps to fire Moen.  This included informing the supposedly threatened union representatives and interviewing the co-workers who had heard the rumor.  When Moen reported to work, he was frisked by a police officer, escorted to a conference room and fired.  Both the hotel and the union then sought restraining orders and barred him from the hotel and the union hall.

The problem for the hotel was that the rumor was false.  In a subsequent investigation by Moen’s attorney, the bellman who allegedly heard Moen’s gun threat denied ever hearing or repeating it.

Moen sued for breach of his union contract and defamation.  The jury awarded him $157,326.00 in lost wages, $200,000.00 for past damage to reputation and $119,000.00 for future damage to reputation.

The case points out the difficult question that arises when an employer is confronted with threats of potential workplace violence:  to what extent must the employer investigate the threat before taking action?  If the employer reacts too cautiously, and it turns out that the threat is real, the result could be disastrous.  If, as in Jeff Moen’s case, the employer reacts too aggressively, the result could be costly.  It appears that to avoid this result, Marriott should have dug a little deeper to get to the underlying source of the rumor before actually firing Moen.

For more detail about the case, see Fired bellhop gets $476K for defamation, says Olmsted County District Court, http://bit.ly/gWngAs.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.
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