Generally, employers are best protected from lawsuits for terminating an employee if they document the employee’s file with reasons for the termination before acting on it. However, in Ledbetter v. Good Samaritan Ministries, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 1943 (7th Cir. Ill. Feb 6, 2015), the Court cautions employers that the timing of the employee’s termination is as significant as documenting the reasons for the employee’s termination. Once employers make the decision to terminate an employee, Ledbetter suggests they act immediately.
In Ledbetter, an employee of Good Samaritan Ministries was terminated after he filed a charge for racial discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The employee argued that Good Samaritan terminated him in retaliation for filing the charge of racial discrimination with the EEOC. Good Samaritan argued it made the decision to terminate the employee before it had notice that the employee filed the charge, and therefore, the decision could not have been based on the employee filling the charge of racial discrimination. Good Samaritan filed a successful motion for summary judgment. The employee appealed, and the Seventh Circuit court reversed the district court’s decision.
Good Samaritan received two complaints and gave the employee three warnings before the supervisors held a meeting on October 14, 2010, during which they decided to terminate the employee. Good Samaritan neglected to document the decision reached at his meeting. Moreover, Good Samaritan did not actually terminate the employee until six days later on October 20, 2010. On October 19, 2010, the day before the employee was terminated, the supervisors at Good Samaritan learned that the employee had filed a second charge for racial discrimination at the EEOC. The employee had filed his first charge for racial discrimination against Good Samaritan in June of 2010, but Good Samaritan was not aware of this charge until October 21, 2010, which was after the employee had been terminated.
The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s order, and explained that Good Samaritan’s delay in terminating the employee supported an inference that the employee had been terminated because he filed the charge for racial discrimination. The Seventh Circuit noted that Good Samaritan had obviously not been in a hurry to execute the decision to terminate the employee given that it waited six days after supposedly making the decision to see it through. Further, it was problematic that there was no documentation of the personnel meeting that supported Good Samaritan’s position that it decided to terminate the employee at that meeting. Therefore, the Seventh Circuit court held it was possible the decision made at the October 14, 2010 meeting was to terminate the employee at some point in the future, and upon learning the employee filed a second charge of discrimination, that time presented itself.
Ledbetter educates employers on the importance of documenting the decision making process and acting on a decision to terminate an employee without delay once there is sufficient information in the employee’s file to support the termination. An employer’s failure to act promptly allows the employee and the court the opportunity to identify other reasons for the termination that may arise during the time the employer fails to take action. Ultimately, narrowing the time frame that elapses between the decision to terminate an employee and the act of terminating the employee will help employers avoid inference that any intervening circumstance, such as the employee filing the retaliation charge in Ledbetter, was the true or an additional reason for termination.
Tami Reding-Brubaker is a partner in Cassiday Schade LLP's Libertyville and Chicago offices and the co-chair of the firm's Employment Law practice group. She concentrates her practice in civil litigation and employment law matters.