February 27, 2013

Questions — and answers — about “legitimate business reasons”

Posted in At-will Employment, Discrimination, Legitimate business reason, Legitimate Business Reason for Termination or other Adverse Action, Wrongful Termination tagged , , , , , at 1:46 pm by Tom Jacobson

Questions, I’ve got some questions
I want to know you
But what if  I could ask you only one thing
Only this one time, what would you tell me?

— Jack Johnson, Questions (2006)

In the song Questions, Jack Johnson ponders the myriad of questions swirling around in his head about a new relationship. What are your intentions, suggestions and impressions? Will you try?

When we’re thinking about something new and exciting, our main curiosity is this: where will this lead? Our hope is that it will lead to a good place.

When bad things happen, we also have questions.  Most often the question is, “Why?”

So it is when an employer must discipline or discharge an employee. When that happens, the question swirling around in the employee’s head is often, “Why?” If the employer cannot offer legitimate business reasons for its actions, not only is the employee left scratching his or her head and wondering why, but the employer may struggle to defend the ensuing lawsuit when the employee claims the answer to “Why?” is discrimination or some other legal wrong.

The importance of having legitimate business reasons for an employment decision was recently reiterated in the case of Wood v. SatCom Marketing, LLC. In this case, Jenna Wood sued her former employer, SatCom, alleging violations of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, Minnesota Human Rights Act, common law of wrongful termination, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. The case made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit where the court rejected Woods’ claims after noting that while there was some evidence to support Wood’s claim, SatCom presented evidence of its legitimate business reasons for suspending and then dismissing Wood.

Specifically, the Court credited SatCom’s evidence that Wood severely neglected a data entry assignment, was late for work and failed to submit a required schedule. This, the Court said, supported the company’s decision to suspend Wood. The Court also noted that following her suspension, Wood disregarded a company directive by failing to return to work with a signed copy of an action plan and then twice violated the plan itself. Therefore, the Court held, SatCom had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its decision to discharge Wood. Further, the Court ruled that Wood did not present any evidence that SatCom’s stated reasons were a pretext for any unlawful discrimination. Thus, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case.

What you need to know: When employees challenge the adverse actions taken against them, employers have a much easier time defending the claims when they can present evidence of the legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons for their actions. Moreover, when those reasons are made clear to an employee before the adverse action, the employee may be less likely to challenge the employer’s decision because he or she will already have the answer to the question: s/he will already know why. 

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  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.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

August 5, 2012

With Legitimate Business Reasons for Dismissal, Plaintiffs Can’t Always Get What They Want

Posted in At-will Employment, Color, Disability, Discrimination, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Gender / Sex, Legitimate business reason, Marital Status, National Origin, Pretext, Prima Facie Case, Race, Reduction in Force (RIF), Religion, Reprisal, Retaliation, Sexual Orientation, Termination for Cause, Wrongful Termination tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:20 pm by Tom Jacobson

I’ve often advocated that regardless of whether an employment relationship is contractual (where the reasons and/or process for dismissal may be spelled out in an agreement) or at-will (where the employment can be ended with or without notice and with or without legal cause), the best practice is to have a legitimate business reason for discharging an employee. Three recent court decisions validate my point.

Let me set the stage by noting that in discrimination cases, the employee wants to prove that the employer’s actions were based on some unlawful discriminatory reason, such as age, race or gender.  The employer, of course, wants to prove that its decisions were based on entirely legitimate reasons. To balance these competing interests, the courts recognize a process that begins with the employee being required to present a legally-specified bare minimum of evidence suggesting that discrimination occurred. This is called the employee’s prima facie case. If the employee can do that, the burden shifts to the employer to present evidence that its actions were based on legitimate (non-discriminatory) business reasons. Once that’s done, the burden shifts back to the employee to present evidence that the employer’s stated reason is a pretext, which is basically a cover up for the true discriminatory motive. In legalese, this is referred to as the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework (named after the  United States Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in the case of McDonnell-Douglas v. Green).

The effectiveness of being able to establish a legitimate business reason played out recently in three separate cases. First, in Prody v. City of Anoka a former employee established a prima facie case of age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The employer then presented evidence that he was dismissed as a part of a reduction in force (RIF). Because the plaintiff could not establish pretext, the case was dismissed.

Next, in Bone v. G4 Youth Services, LLC the employee alleged age, race and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) discrimination. As in the Prody case, the plaintiff was unable to show that the employer’s stated reasons for the discharge (failing to follow a directive, poor communication, losing the trust of employees, and refusing in general to accommodate employees’ requests) were a pretext for discrimination.

Finally, in Hilt v. St. Jude Medical S.C., Inc. the plaintiff claimed the employer fired her in violation of Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act. The employer presented evidence that the termination resulted from a RIF, and because the plaintiff could not establish that the RIF was a pretext, the court dismissed the case.

So, as these three cases illustrate, if you are an employee who feels you’ve been discriminated against, but your employer can demonstrate a legitimate business reason for its actions, You Can’t Always Get What You Want (thank you, Rolling Stones!).

What you need to know:  Regardless of the type of employment relationship, it is always an employer’s best practice to be able to rely on evidence to show that employment decisions are based on legitimate non-discriminatory reasons.

For more information about this article, 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.

Copyright 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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