Inconsistent Discipline Can Create Legal issues You Would Rather Avoid

By Eric B. Meyer

Over the weekend, I read a FMLA retaliation opinion (Wheat v. Florida Parish Juvenile Justice Commission) from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that, unfortunately, read like so many prior employment legal skirmishes.

  • Employee claims that she was fired for exercising her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Employer asserts legitimate business reasons for firing the employee.
  • Employee engaged in similar (mis)behavior several years earlier and was not fired.
  • Employee then cites other examples of employees who did not exercise rights under the FMLA, but engaged in similar behavior, and were not fired.
  • Employer’s like…

A pretext for discrimination?

Inconsistent treatment is an easy way for a judge (or jury) to conclude that whatever legitimate business reason you may have for taking action against an employee is really a pretext for discrimination.

So, how can employers avoid inconsistent treatment and related claims of discrimination?

I recommend that you check out this post from my friend, Jonathan Segal. Here is his advice:

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The beginning of a New Year is a great time to minimize the risk of bad precedent.

Prepare a document now stating that, regardless of what may have been the practice in the past, effective January 1, 2016, you will do X consistently. You may even want to communicate something to that effect to the workforce (but without directly stating that there may have been prior inconsistencies).”

One way to frame a solid defense

Even if you practice what you preach going forward, as Jonathan notes, this document will not necessarily be your smoking gun.

But, if you do this it will help help to frame a solid defense as to why you took action against the plaintiff in 2016, when, previously, you may have been more lenient with others in the past.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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