It’s pretty obvious that you should not fire an employee who just filed a discrimination claim. But is that rule sealed in cement? One court recently said, “Nope, not if the reason is really, really, really good enough.” So what’s “good enough?”
Case in Point: Will Singleton worked as a registered nurse at a Kentucky hospital. Singleton, who is white, submitted a race discrimination complaint with the hospital, arguing that black employees were being given preferential shift assignments. Two weeks later, the hospital suspended him. And 16 days later he was fired.
Singleton sued, claiming the firing was retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for filing a discrimination claim. But the hospital denied the firing was retaliation and, instead, pointed to another reason: Singleton’s ongoing problems with documenting narcotics and patient pain levels.
Singleton’s errors could endanger patients, the hospital argued, so it had no choice but to terminate him, regardless of the timing. The hospital was also able to show “a wealth of documentary evidence” of Singleton's inconsistencies or mistakes.
The result: A divided three-judge appeals court panel sided 2-1 with the hospital, saying safety was a good enough reason to fire Singleton, even if the firing cam so soon after the discrimination claim.
But the third dissenting judge issued this warning to employers: Tick, Tock, watch the clock. The claim. The axe. Too, close together. Sounds like retaliation. (Singleton v. Select Specialty Hosp.-Lexington Inc., 6th Cir. unpublished opinion, 8/2/10)
3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court
1. The ‘Safety Trump Card’ wins. There are very few valid reasons an employer can legitimately fire someone who just filed a discrimination claim. Safety is one of them.
2. Use it. Employers have an obligation to make sure that work is done safely.
3. Carefully. But remember, the court has a retaliation stopwatch ... and it’s ticking.