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Follow all leads when investigating allegations–even if they take query in new direction

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Investigations of workplace wrongdoing sometimes take unexpected turns. Don’t hesitate to keep digging, no matter where the evidence leads.

You may discover that the employee who complained in the first place hasn’t been as innocent as he claims. If it turns out that an apparent victim has actually done something wrong, you can take disciplinary action.

Recent case: John Oliva became a New Jersey state trooper after serving as a Marine and working as a corrections officer and municipal police officer.

When he graduated from the police academy, Oliva was assigned a “trooper coach” to serve as mentor and partner. It wasn’t long before Oliva became concerned about his coach’s attitude toward minorities, especially when the two made traffic stops. Oliva complained to higher-ups that his coach “profiled” motorists, singling out minorities for traffic stops for no reason other than their appearance.

As time went on, Oliva’s working relationships in general began deteriorating. He claimed that other troopers constantly targeted him as someone who didn’t adhere to their informal code of conduct.

Eventually, Oliva went public with his profiling allegations, speaking with Philadelphia Inquirer reporters. The newspaper did an investigative report on the alleged profiling, which generated quite a stir in both Philadelphia and New Jersey. The article highlighted the problems Oliva claimed he started having after complaining about profiling.

The state police then started an internal investigation into the allegations. It identified a number of people who had been stopped by Oliva and his trooper coach, interviewed them and even administered polygraph tests on them when they fingered Oliva for conducting illegal vehicle searches after they were stopped.

Those allegations led to internal charges that Oliva might also have violated the civil rights of some of the motorists he stopped. When confronted, Oliva apparently admitted some of the allegations.

He sued for retaliation, but committed suicide while his lawsuit was still pending. Oliva’s family continued the lawsuit.

But the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the state police investigation into Oliva’s alleged wrongdoing wasn’t retaliation. It said the investigation had been appropriately conducted and that there was nothing out of order with charging Oliva with misconduct based on independent evidence from the motorists.

The appeals court dismissed the claim, noting that the case was tragic in many ways—but that tragedy didn’t change the conclusion that there had been no retaliation for engaging in protected activity. (Oliva v. NJ, et al., No. 09-2082, 3rd Cir., 2010)

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