Got a good reason for firing? Then stick with it–or risk a lawsuit

Generally speaking, the law does not tolerate inconsistency very well. That’s one reason it’s so important to be careful about how you explain someone’s termination.

If your story changes, don’t be surprised if it winds up being used against you.

Recent case: Gerald had bone cancer as a child and walked with the aid of crutches. He went to work for Houston’s KHOU as a video editor. The TV station began emphasizing electronic digital editing and set up a studio for that purpose. It was a small room and Gerald had a hard time moving around in the close quarters.

Most editors were scheduled to work in the digital studio two or three times per week, but Gerald was not.

Later, after Gerald sued, his supervisors testified that they “didn’t want to put him in any health jeopardy” by having him work in such a tight space.

Eventually, Gerald was terminated as part of a reduction in force.

The station’s explanations shifted over time. For example, it told the EEOC that Gerald was fired because he was unwilling to adapt to technological changes. But before then, it told his lawyers that Gerald refused to work in the digital studio. Finally, at trial, it argued that Gerald had not taken the initiative to work in the space—even though his supervisors testified about his strong work ethic.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said this shifting explanation might be evidence that KHOU used the reduction in force as an excuse to get rid of a disabled employee. (Caldwell v. KHOU-TV, 5th Cir., 2017)

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