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Think twice before doing anything to discourage employee lawsuit

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in Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

When an employee is threatening to file a lawsuit against your organization, it’s natural to feel angry, betrayed or even hurt. But don’t react. Instead, tell him that the decision is his, and you’ll treat him just the same as you always have—lawsuit or no lawsuit.

As the following case shows, threatening to get even may land your company in big trouble—more trouble than the original lawsuit might have caused.

Recent case: Ramsey Reed had a serious car accident. He couldn’t return to work for Buckeye Fire Equipment until his broken bones healed and he finished physical therapy. He asked for a medical leave of absence and got one.

But he didn’t recover as fast as he expected and was out for 15 weeks. That’s when the company told him he didn’t have a job to return to. He then called the owner and threatened to sue under the FMLA, claiming he should have been informed that he had only 12 weeks of leave coming.

Shortly after, the owner and his son went through Reed’s desk and found what seemed to be correspondence from the married Reed’s lover. Reed then claimed he got a call from the owner, who told him that if he went ahead with his threatened lawsuit, his wife would find out about the affair.

Reed filed not only an FMLA lawsuit but also an obstruction-of-justice claim. The trial court tossed out the claim, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it. The appeals court said that North Carolina law makes it illegal to “do any act which prevents, obstructs, impedes or hinders public or legal justice.”

It said that even an attempt to prevent or deter someone from seeking justice might be illegal—and threatening to reveal compromising correspondence to Reed’s wife if he sued was designed to impede his access to the legal system. A jury now will decide if the owners obstructed justice. (Reed v. Buckeye Fire Equipment, No. 06-1481, 4th Cir., 2007)

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