When it comes to reasons for firing employees, I’ve heard some good ones in my day — and by good, I mean legitimate.
Conversely, the excuse I just read in the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Hitchcock v. Angel Corps., Inc., a case involving a pregnancy discrimination claim, may be the worst. The worst one ever.
Angel Corps and its management staff feel that as a result of [the plaintiff’s] actions she compromised the health and safety of this client. According to policy and procedure this action will result in an immediate termination.
Angel Corps is a non-medical home care agency that performs personal care services for its clients. And the plaintiff was a client services supervisor who, indeed, had recently visited a client.
So what makes this excuse so lame? So absurd? Such an all-timer?
Well, you see. Angel Corps. asked the plaintiff to visit a new 100-year old client for intake and assessment. When the plaintiff showed up at the centenarian’s house, she assessed that the client was dead. That’s right, dead! The client was already dead. For two days.
Naturally, the plaintiff, who had informed Angel Corps that she was pregnant, suspected that something was amiss her; possibly the firing for failing to properly care for a dead person reflected discriminatory animus against the plaintiff. (Well, that and the increased scrutiny and work heaped on her after her baby announcement).
But hold on here, folks. Maybe, just maybe, I’m overselling this. So, let’s consider the supervisor affidavit that Angel Corps. filed with the lower court in support of its motion for summary judgment on the pregnancy discrimination claims:
Had [the client] been living at the time Hitchcock did her assessment (such as when Hitchcock was originally scheduled to assess [the client on March 31]) Hitchcock would have compromised the health and safety of [the client] by not conducting a proper assessment and by not attending to or taking steps for Angel Corps [to] attend to obvious problems of [the client], such as the dried liquid on her mouth.
For realz! That’s what they filed. And you know what? The lower court granted summary judgment to Angel Corps. It dismissed the pregnancy discrimination claims!
Fortunately, the Seventh Circuit disagreed, finding that Angel Corps’ “legitimate business reason” for terminating Ms. Hitchcock may be pretextual; i.e., phony:
A reasonable juror could also find the explanation … to be so ludicrous that Angel Corps is not to be believed…Angel Corps’s brief attempts to make sense out of [this], but it does so by piling on additional ever-evolving justifications that may cause a reasonable juror to wonder whether Angel Corps can ever get its story straight.
Two takeaways for my readers:
- If you have a reason for firing someone, make sure it’s a good one that doesn’t involve failing to administer proper care to a dead person.
- The one exception.
- Otherwise, stick with that reason. When you shift reasons, you look shafty. And neither judges nor jurors like shafty.