A recent decision by the Seventh Circuit in Zayas v. Rockford Memorial Hospital highlights for employers the importance of documenting disciplinary actions taken with employees. Despite the plaintiff's evidence of satisfactory job performance and discriminatory comments by co-workers, an employer successfully avoided liability for discrimination after firing the employee by providing documented evidence of a non-discriminatory reason for the termination.
A former hospital employee brought claims of national-origin and age discrimination after being fired for repeatedly sending "negative, unprofessional, and disrespectful" emails to her boss and other co-workers. The record showed the hospital had taken several disciplinary actions against the plaintiff concerning unprofessional communications with her co-workers, including a written warning for such conduct. Despite these actions, the plaintiff sent three more unprofessional emails to her boss, after which she was fired.
The plaintiff supported her discrimination claims with evidence of "satisfactory" performance evaluations and unwelcome remarks that co-workers made in reference to her Puerto Rican heritage. In response, the employer presented documentation of its past disciplinary actions, including counseling sessions with its HR department. In upholding a summary judgment dismissal of the plaintiff's claim, the court held that the employer's evidence of the plaintiff's discipline issues overrode any evidence of her satisfactory job performance.
In discrimination cases, plaintiffs have the burden of proving they were fired because of some protected characteristic — sex, race, national origin, age, etc. —and that discrimination was the motivating factor in the adverse employment action. Conversely, employers faced with a discrimination lawsuit must offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing an employee.
In this case, the court found that the hospital's termination of the plaintiff was motivated by her repeated unprofessional conduct, not her age or national origin. The outcome could have been different had the hospital been unable to provide clear evidence of the disciplinary actions it had taken with the plaintiff. Instead, the hospital was able to avoid the negative exposure and substantial cost of a jury trial by providing clear evidence that discrimination was not a factor in the firing.
This case underscores the necessity of maintaining up-to-date, thorough records of discipline issued to employees and the importance of documentation procedures in employer discrimination policies. Employees should be trained on these procedures and how to prevent and respond to workplace discrimination and harassment. WeComply has a variety of training tools for educating employees on their role in compliance, including online courses on Preventing Discrimination and Harassment, ADA Training, Conducting Effective Internal Investigations, Managing within the Law, Careful Communication and Avoiding Retaliation.