Managers and Human Resources personnel are often told again and again by legal counsel that being consistent in handling employee termination matters is absolutely crucial. A recent case from federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania once again demonstrates this important lesson.
In Eastman v. ReSearch Pharmaceuticals (ED Pa. Aug 1, 2013), the federal court denied summary judgment for the employer due in large part to the lack of consistency in the employer’s reasons for terminating its former employee.
Linda Eastman worked for ReSearch as a clinical research associate traveling to sites of clinical drug trials. She was scheduled to drive from New Jersey to New York but complained of back pain and asked if someone could go in her place, but ultimately took the trip herself. At the clinical trial site, a physician noticed that she was experiencing back pain and offered to examine her. The physician advised her to return to her hotel room and take a muscle relaxant which he gave her without a prescription. Eastman did return to the hotel, took the medication and later participated in a conference call during which she acted strangely and informed the others on the call that she had taken the muscle relaxant provided by the physician.
Several days later Eastman was terminated after speaking with two senior managers and the Executive Director of Human Resources. Eastman alleged that at the time she was terminated, she was told that she was fired for violating the company’s drug policy. During discovery, the human resources representative testified that while the drug policy was discussed, Eastman had been terminated for “unprofessional conduct.” After being terminated, Eastman sent an email to the company CEO and the Vice President of Global Human Resources responded to her and during an email exchange informed Eastman that she was not fired for taking a controlled substance without a prescription.
Eastman filed suit and during discovery the Global HR VP testified that she was terminated for “unprofessional behavior” that occurred during the conference call. The HR ED who actually terminated Eastman had testified during her Unemployment Compensation hearing that she was fired for “unprofessional behavior” but later provided deposition testimony that both the drug policy and her behavior were what resulted in her termination.
The company’s lack of consistency in articulating its reason for terminating Eastman’s employment led the Court to deny the employer’s motion for Summary Judgment. The company had two legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing Eastman and had they stuck with either of them and not wavered, they probably would have been granted summary judgment and had the case dismissed. Vacillating between the two explanations created enough of a question of “pretext” to preclude Summary Judgment.
Managers and Human Resources must communicate clearly internally and also with a fired employee regarding the reason for termination and it is crucial that they remain consistent in how they describe and document termination decisions. Failure to do so may result in painful and possibly expensive lessons.