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Don’t let jury duty force you to defend yourself in court

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in Firing,HR Management,Human Resources

Both Illinois and federal laws require employers to let their employees off for jury duty. Additionally, employers may not penalize employees for serving on a jury. No matter how obvious this is, every now and then, employers try to get back at employees who perform their civic duties. It never works.

Replaced by failed supervisor

Karen McCoy worked in the parts department of Elgin-based commercial oven manufacturer Middleby Marshall. In early 2008, she received a summons for federal jury duty. McCoy immediately told her supervisor about the summons. The supervisor merely said, “OK.”

A few weeks later McCoy reported for jury duty on a Monday morning. She pulled duty on a trial that lasted through the week. She called her employer on Friday to ask whether she could work on Saturday. Receiving no answer, she left a message on her supervisor’s voice mail.

The following Monday, McCoy arrived at work two hours early. She found the username and password on her computer had been changed, and someone else had been using her desk. One of her supervisors, Margit Ritchey, saw her and asked, “What are you doing here?” She told McCoy to speak to another supervisor, Michael Matthews, before starting work.

In the meantime, an HR representative asked McCoy to accompany him to a conference room. On the way, they met Matthews, who told her she had been terminated. Matthews apologized, told her she had been an excellent employee, and if she desired, he would give her a good reference. Matthews said the order to fire her had come from higher up in the company.

Later, McCoy talked to another co-worker who said Matthews had been very upset over the firing.

McCoy soon learned that the person who took her position was a line supervisor who had been performing poorly. Apparently because of that trouble, the company had moved her into McCoy’s position.

Shift happens

McCoy immediately reported her termination to the federal court.

The judge in the case launched an investigation. He took McCoy’s statement and requested a statement from Middleby Marshall. The company corroborated what McCoy said, but denied that her jury duty had anything to do with her dismissal—the firing was simply a result of changing staffing needs. Nonetheless, the judge termed it “suspicious” that McCoy was fired so soon after serving on the jury.

Under federal court rules, jurors who believe they were terminated because of their jury service only have to prove that there is probable merit to their complaint for the court to take action. The judge concluded McCoy’s complaint met that standard.

The judge then appointed an attorney to represent McCoy in a discrimination claim against Middleby Marshall.

Support the court in company policies

Workers will be called for jury duty sometime. Your leave policy should plan for this eventuality.

Illinois law requires employers to treat time off for jury duty as a “furlough or leave of absence” and requires employers to reinstate employees to their previous positions “without loss of seniority.” Employees are entitled to “participate in insurance or other benefits offered by the employer under established rules and practices relating to employees on furlough or leave of absence in effect with the employer at the time the individual entered upon jury service.”

In other words, the minimum employers must do is treat jury duty like any other leave of absence. Nothing prevents employers from doing more, such as paying employees for time on jury duty.

Any employer that chooses to do this should do it for all employees or all workers in certain job categories. Otherwise, the employer is open to discrimination charges.

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