For an employee to win a discrimination lawsuit, he has to show that he was qualified for the job he held.
Some employers assume that if they disciplined the employee for, that proves he wasn’t qualified. But a court might not see it that way if you trained and tested him before putting him to work.
Recent case: Gregory, who is black, was hired as a forklift operator for Seneca Foods. Before beginning work, he took a training class and passed the exit tests with flying colors. However, it soon became clear that he wasn’t very careful; accidents and safety violations began piling up. Finally, Gregory was fired after he derailed a group of carts he was transporting.
Gregory sued, alleging race discrimination and contending that white forklift operators were treated more favorably.
Seneca tried to have the case tossed out. It argued it had proved Gregory wasn’t qualified for his job when it cited his numerous accidents and safety violations.
The court disagreed. It noted that being qualified is different from being a good employee. Because Gregory passed the training tests, he was qualified for the job. He could therefore keep his lawsuit moving, leaving Seneca to show it had legitimate reasons for firing him.
Fortunately for the company, it did. Seneca showed that Gregory’s safety record was by far the worst among his co-workers and that was why it fired him. Gregory then couldn’t show that others were treated more leniently. He lost his case. (Jackson v. Seneca Foods, No. 09-CV-6241, WD NY, 2012)
Final note: When firing for poor performance, don’t assume you’ll automatically win because the employee isn’t qualified for his job. You must be ready to show that others with similar work problems were also fired.