Is An Employer’s Shoddy Investigation Evidence Of A Discriminatory Discharge?
For more than twenty years, our wrongful termination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida have litigated wrongful termination cases in Florida courts. Through their decades of experience handling wrongful termination cases, our wrongful termination lawyers in Inverness, Florida know that employees are often told in termination meetings that the decision to terminate their employment was based the employer’s investigation into their conduct. In the employment discrimination litigation context, employers then argue that their investigation efforts conclusively establish that the employee was terminated for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. To some employer-friendly judges, an employer investigation is enough, by itself, to afford a termination decision with a presumption of legitimacy.
Many employer investigations into the conduct of terminated employees, however, are rigged to reach a pre-determined conclusion or otherwise conducted in bad faith. During the course of their investigation, employers will ignore exculpatory evidence, fail to aggressively question witnesses, adopt the innocent explanations proffered by biased employees, refuse to interview the terminated employee’s witnesses, and never get the terminated employee’s side of the story. In other words, many employers use an investigation as a shield—to cover-up a discriminatory motive—and as a sword—to create the appearance of legitimacy to a termination decision. In this article, our wrongful termination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida explain how the decision in Chaney v. Plainfield Healthcare Center, 612 F.3d 908 (7th Cir. 2010) illustrates that an employer’s shoddy investigation is evidence that an employer’s termination decision was motivated by discriminatory animus.
Wrongful Termination Lawsuit
In that case, a woman named Chaney brought a wrongful termination lawsuit against her former employer, Plainfield Healthcare Center (“Plainfield”), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of race. Chaney, who is African-American, alleges that Plainfield terminated her employment because of her race in violation of Title VII.
Plainfield is a nursing home. Chaney was employed by Plainfield as a certified nursing assistant (“CNA”). In this position, Chaney was responsible for monitoring patients, responding to their requests for service, and generally assisting in their daily living needs. Plainfield maintained a policy of honoring the racial preferences of its residents in assigning health-care providers. For fear of being fired, Chaney went along with this policy.
After Cheney had worked for Plainfield for just three months, Plainfield fired her. In the early morning on September 6, according to a nurse named Cafouras who lodged the complaint that led to Chaney’s discharge, a resident struggling to get out of bed had signaled a call light. Chaney and another CNA, Hart, were both positioned to respond but both initially refused. When Chaney ultimately came to the resident’s room, Cafouras alleged that Chaney used profanity while lifting the resident onto her bedside commode.
Worker Not Interviewed Before Fired
Cafouras’ complaint was investigated concurrently by a unit supervisor, Askew, who normally investigated misconduct complaints in her unit, and the Director of Nursing, Reyes. Askew maintained that she was skeptical of the allegation, having never before heard Chaney use profanity at work. She investigated and learned that the resident’s roommate, a witness to the incident, did not hear Chaney use profanity. Askew relayed her findings, along with her skepticism, to Reyes. Although a full day had yet to pass since Cafouras filed her complaint, Reyes had resolved to fire Chaney. Hart, who heard the alarm but never responded, was not interviewed until two weeks after the incident. Hart was not disciplined even though the resident who signaled the alarm was in her unit, not Chaney’s.
On the evening of September 6, Chaney was sent home when she arrived to work her regular shift. The next morning, she received a phone call from Plainfield’s human resources manager informing Chaney that her employment was terminated. At a post-termination meeting a few days later, Chaney alleges that Plainfield told Chaney that it fired her because she used profanity in the presence of a resident and gave no other grounds for the firing. At this meeting, Chaney denied the charge and was invited to write her version of events, but her termination was not overturned. Plainfield has since focused on other, independent grounds for Chaney’s discharge: “bed alarm and call light infractions” and “not doing a shift change.”
Employer’s “Cursory Investigation”
The trial court dismissed Chaney’s race discrimination claim. On appeal, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Chaney’s race discrimination claim. In reversing the trial court, the Seventh Circuit found that Plainfield’s “cursory investigation into [Chaney’s] alleged misconduct casts doubt on the sincerity of the reason that [the company] offered for firing her.”
In support of its finding, the Seventh Circuit observed that “Reyes had resolved to fire Chaney within 24 hours of receiving Cafouras’ complaint, a decision he reached in an unusual way.” “Askew,” the court of appeals pointed out, “ordinarily investigated charges of misconduct in her unit, but Reyes conducted his own investigation and decided to fire Chaney without considering Askew’s evidence that the complaint was unfounded.” The appellate court also noted that “Reyes could have easily interviewed Cheney about the incident, as well as co-worker Hart, who was present when Chaney’s alleged misconduct occurred.” “What is more,” the court of appeals explained, “Chaney states that at the termination meeting, the only reason she was given for her discharge was the alleged use of profanity.” “During the litigation,” the appellate court explained, “Plainfield has focused attention on other potential grounds for firing Chaney, such as charges of ignoring the call light and refusing a shift change.” “A shifting justification for an employment decision,” the Seventh Circuit recognized, “can itself be circumstantial evidence of an unlawful motive.”
Citrus County Wrongful Termination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our wrongful termination attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of wrongful termination victims. If you have been wrongfully terminated or have questions about your rights as a wrongful termination victim, please contact our office for a free consultation with our wrongful termination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes wrongful termination 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.