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Track discrimination claims to head off post-Firing suits

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in Employment Law,Firing,HR Management,Human Resources

When it comes to the threat of litigation, there’s nothing more dangerous than a terminated employee. Workers who have lost their jobs often look for some ulterior motive to explain their terminations.

Many blame retaliation. This is especially true if someone has recently filed an internal discrimination complaint or gone directly to the EEOC. Naturally, such timing is suspicious.

Here’s what to do if a former employee claiming he was targeted because of a discrimination complaint sues you: Check when the complaint first came to light. Any complaints should have been logged and time-stamped, even if the complaint wasn’t written.

Note: If you received the complaint after the termination decision, there can’t be a cause-and-effect link between the two.

But what if the HR office or someone else at the company got the complaint before the termination decision? In that case, check to see whether the actual decision-maker knew about the complaint. If he or she didn’t, there’s still no link.

If the decision-maker did know, then make sure the termination decision was rock solid and carefully documented.

Recent case: Eddie Pittman, who is black, worked as a temporary construction worker on a large University of North Carolina building project. While sitting at lunch one day, he was joined by an employee who worked for one of the other construction companies involved in the project.

When Pittman turned out to be less than talkative, the lunch mate announced loudly that “You gotta watch quiet people … they might be ready to snap at any time and kill someone.”

Pittman took offense, assuming the comments were racially motivated. He complained to his immediate supervisor, who worked for the temporary staffing company that employed Pittman. The supervisor said he would pass the complaint along to the project general contractor. However, he did not do so immediately.

Then the general contractor decided to eliminate three temporary positions, including Pittman’s. Pittman sued, alleging retaliation for complaining about the harassment he perceived he had endured at lunch.

The general contractor told the court that it knew nothing about the alleged incident at the time that it made the termination decision. The court concluded that since the company could show it knew nothing, the suspicious timing was just speculation and conjecture. It tossed out Pittman’s case. (Pittman v. Hunt Construction, et al., No. 4:07-CV-1-D, ED NC, 2008) 

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