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Can Employers Lawfully Fire Employees Based On Hearsay?

Equal Opportunity Advocate Evaluating Employment Practices for Compliance with Inclusivity Laws.

Through their decades of experience representing employees, our employment lawyers in Marion County, Florida know that employees are often terminated based on hearsay. In the termination context, hearsay generally means that the employees involved in making the termination did not communicate, whether verbally or in writing, with the individual who furnished information on which the termination decision was based. For example, a decision-maker was informed by an employee that the employee learned from a customer that the terminated employee engaged in some alleged wrongful act. When the employee is fired based on the alleged wrongful act, if the decision-maker did not communicate with the customer before making the termination decision, the termination decision is based on hearsay. The unreliability and unfairness of the hearsay is heighted when the decision-maker fails to bring up any of the information as to alleged wrongful act to the terminated employee before making the termination decision.

Employers are not prohibited from basing termination decisions on hearsay. As observed by the court in Abel v. Dubberly, 210 F.3d 1334 (11th Cir. 2000), “an employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not for a discriminatory reason.” As the language of the Abel court reflects, firing an employee based on erroneous facts derived from hearsay is not, standing alone, unlawful. However, as explained by the court in Smith v. Chrysler Corp., 155 F.3d 799 (6th Cir. 1998), in evaluating whether an employment decision was made for a discriminatory reason, courts inquire into “whether the employer made a reasonably informed and considered decision.” In most cases, a termination decision based on hearsay is not a reasonably informed and considered decision.

In this article, our employment lawyers in Marion County, Florida explain how the decision in Burnett v. East Tallahatchie School District, Case No. 23-cv-183 (N.D. Miss. Jan. 11 2024) shows that when an employer relies on hearsay for a termination decision, the information derived from the hearsay is often not the true reason for the termination, but rather a pretext for discrimination.

Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

In that case, a woman named Burnett brought a wrongful termination claim against her former employer, East Tallahatchie School District (“ETSD”), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees because of their race. Burnett claims that she was fired because of her race in violation of Title VII.

In 2012, Burnett began working for ETSD as its child nutrition director. While working in this position, Burnett applied for and was approved for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) due to a health condition that also involved neck surgery. Burnett began her FMLA leave on April 19, 2021 and was scheduled to return to work in early July 2021.

While on FMLA leave, Burnett went to Jamaica with her husband and son, stating that she was accompanying her son on a school senior trip as a chaperone. The trip, which took place from May 17, 2021 through May 22, 2021, according to Burnett, was cleared by her doctor so long as she did not lift anything over five pounds, exert herself, or get water on her wound.

After the trip, on or around May 24, 2021, Burnett attempted to return to work early as she and her doctor believed that she had recovered enough to perform her job. Once Burnett returned to work at ETSD, she was asked to meet with the superintendent of ETSD, Edwards. There are differing versions from Burnett and Edwards on how this meeting unfolded. Burnett claims that Edwards yelled at her and accused her of doing something that he would never say. Burnett states that she assumed the meeting was about her FMLA leave, but Edwards just yelled at her saying “you know what you’ve done” while never actually specifying any particular behavior. Burnett further claims that Burnett told her she was under investigation and being put on leave but was not told the reason for the investigation. Edwards contends that Burnett was given an opportunity to inform him of the Jamaica trip but failed to do so when he asked Burnett if “there was anything [Burnett] wanted to share about why she was off work.”

On June 23, 2021, Edwards terminated Burnett’s employment. Edwards claims that the termination was due to Burnett’s violation of FMLA guidelines stating that he believed “if you can go to Jamaica, you can return to work.”

Hearsay Is Not A Basis For Informed Decision

ETSD filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Burnett’s race discrimination claim. In seeking dismissal, ETSD argued that the evidence showed that Burnett was fired for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason—her violation of FMLA guidelines—and not because of her race. The trial court denied ETSD’s motion for dismissal and ruled that Burnett had presented sufficient evidence to establish that she was fired because of her race in violation of Title VII to proceed to a jury trial.

In denying ETSD’s motion for dismissal, the trial court focused on ETSD’s reliance on hearsay as the basis for the termination decision. The trial court observed that Edwards “never told Burnett what she was suspected of, never told Burnett where he learned the information from, and never asked Burnett to give any form of input on the alleged misconduct.” Rather that getting Burnett’s side of the story, the trial court pointed out, Edwards learned that Burnett had travelled to Jamaica “from a school board member, [ ] Neal, who learned of the trip from Burnett’s daughter, [ ] Anderson.” However, the trial court noted, Anderson “has asserted that she has never had a conversation with [ ] Neal, much less discussed the trip with [ ] Neal.” “Following the vast amount of potential hearsay involved in learning this information and then concluding that an employee should be terminated,” the trial court found it significant that Edwards “never brought any of this information up to Burnett as to her alleged wrongful act or the surrounding details.” Based on this evidence, the trial court concluded that a reasonable jury could find ETSD’s “explanation is not the true reasoning for terminating Burnet, but rather a pretext for race discrimination.”

Marion County, FL Employment Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our employment attorneys in Marion County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of employees. If you have been fired based on hearsay or have questions about your employee rights under federal employment discrimination law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our employment lawyers in Marion County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes employment discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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