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Need to fire someone with known medical issues? Be prepared to prove your good faith

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in Discrimination and Harassment,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Disabled employees or those who need FMLA leave aren’t immune from following work rules. But think carefully before you punish them.

It is possible to terminate an employee who has announced he needs time off or an accommodation. How­ever, you must have a legitimate rea­son—and you must be able to demonstrate that the company acted in good faith.

How? By documenting your ­decision-making process and showing that supervisors were fair and open-minded, and treated the employee the same as they would have treated another employee without a disability.

Recent case: As the manager of a P.F. Chang’s China Bistro restaurant, Jason Meinelt was responsible for making sure employees clocked in and out properly. He could alter time-clock records to correct mistakes, for example, if an employee forgot to clock out at the end of a shift or when taking a meal break.

The company had a strict rule against underpaying employees and told managers that employees must be paid without exception for every hour worked. The manager’s handbook, which Meinelt received, made it clear that “hourly employees are to be paid according to state and federal wage and hour guidelines.”

In addition, the company’s Em­­ployee Charter, which is posted at every location, states, “Your management team will pay employees for all hours worked.” A regional manager regularly reminded managers via email that they mist abide by the law and pay for all time worked or face termination.

That’s the background against which Meinelt informed his super­visor that he had a brain tumor. The growth, he said, required almost immediate surgery and might put him out of commission for six to eight months.

Within three days, Meinelt was terminated for allegedly changing time records in a way that supposedly shortchanged employees. The termination came after the regional manager audited Meinelt’s time sheets; the manager said subordinates hadn’t been properly paid for 300 hours’ worth of work.

Meinelt sued, alleging disability and FMLA discrimination.

He pointed out that the regional manager knew about his brain tumor and allegedly used the time records as an excuse for getting rid of him so he could not use FMLA leave or otherwise have his disability accommodated.

The restaurant chain argued that it had simply followed its own rules and fired someone whom it believed hadn’t properly paid employees.

But Meinelt pointed out that no one had asked employees if they believed they had not been paid for every hour worked. Plus, several employees testified that Meinelt had simply adjusted the time sheets because they had forgotten to clock out, not in an effort to shortchange them.

The court said that the timing was suspect and that the restaurant chain hadn’t shown it acted in good faith when it disciplined Meinelt for alleged time-clock tampering.

The smoking gun was that the regional manager, who knew about Meinelt’s tumor, never bothered to ask hourly employees if they believed they had ever been shortchanged by their boss. (Meinelt v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, No. H-10-0311, SD TX, 2011)

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