Say one of your employees tells the company doctor he’s had “homicidal feelings” and has thought about shooting his supervisor. It seems clear you could fire the employee if you have a zero-tolerance violence policy. But not so fast. As this case shows, if the employee recently filed a discrimination claim, the firing could be viewed as retaliation. Ugh!
Case in Point: Timothy Pearson was a production worker for 28 years at a Ford Motor Company plant in Ohio. Pearson, who is black, claimed that after a white supervisor took over, he was blamed and disciplined for the mistakes of white employees. He filed a race discrimination claim.
Eventually, Pearson claimed his working conditions got so bad he needed to go on disability leave. He applied for short-term disability. The company sent him for an evaluation with a physician to determine his eligibility. But in a letter to the company, the doctor reported that Pearson had expressed “homicidal feelings” during the examination and said he’d considered “going back to the plant with a gun so as to shoot his supervisor.”
When Ford officials saw the letter, they fired Pearson, citing the company’s zero tolerance policy on violence and threats of violence. Pearson argued that the firing was actually retaliation for filing a discrimination claim.
What happened next? The court sided with Pearson and sent the case to trial, dismissing Ford’s bid to get the case tossed out at the summary judgment phase.
Reason: It said Ford failed to read the whole doctor’s report, which didn’t find Pearson to be a threat and, in fact, recommended Pearson be put back to work in another area after a period of time off. Pearson did not even own a gun. The court also cited Ford's inconsistent enforcement of its zero-tolerance plicy, pointed out that, in the past, white workers at the plant had threatened violence yet weren’t terminated. (Pearson v. Ford Motor Co., S.D. Ohio, 10/5/10)
3 Lessons Learned…Without Going to Court
1. Always read the whole report. A medical evaluation must be read in its entirety. Doctor’s recommendations are taken very seriously by the court.
2. Always watch your timing. Firing anyone who has just exercised his or her legal rights is always very risky. The courts use an invisible “retaliation stopwatch” to determine how much time has elapsed between events.
3. Always get legal counsel involved. When issues of retaliation, safety and discrimination become all twisted up in a ball, it’s best to escalate the issue to your legal counsel to help untangle it lawfully.