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Top Ten Issues In Employment Law For HR Professionals In Virginia in 2008: #5

Published by on January 21, 2009

We will be posting over the next week the top ten developments in employment law for HR professionals in Virginia in 2008.  The list is in no particular order.  Topic number 5 is: Reason For Termination Of Employee Not Provided In Response To EEOC Charge Found To Be Pretext For Discrimination.  More after the break. […]

We will be posting over the next week the top ten developments in employment law for HR professionals in Virginia in 2008.  The list is in no particular order.  Topic number 5 is:

Reason For Termination Of Employee Not Provided In Response To EEOC Charge Found To Be Pretext For Discrimination.  More after the break.

In Wilson v. Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing Co. (opinion here), the Fourth Circuit found the employer liable for ADA discrimination, and upheld an award of almost $200,000 in damages.  A male worker joined Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing as shipping supervisor in 1988 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 10 years later in 1998. He suffered a panic attack and inability to control his right hand in the spring of 2001.  After taking various periods of medical leave, plaintiff alleged that he was treated differently upon his return to work, partially because of his Parkinson’s.  For example, the company took computer input duties away from him because they feared he would enter data incorrectly.  His boss and the company president avoided him–and the president repeatedly demanded doctors’ reports on the expected progression of his disease.  In fact, the president e-mailed Phoenix’s HR assistant to say that he “qualifies for ADA designation and we will have to consider accommodations.”  Shortly thereafter, plaintiff’s position was eliminated due to a “reduction in force.”

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit upheld the District Court’s holding that the elimination of Plaintiff’s position was pretextual.  Shortly after the elimination of Plaintiff’s position the company was sold for substantial profit.  The company was unable to articulate consistent reasons for the elimination of the position.  Specifically, the company argued that Plaintiff was replaced by a new computer system, but the company failed to raise that argument in its response to the EEOC charge.  The court relied on this evidence to find that the reasons for Plaintiff’s termination were pretextual.

Assuming that an employer is acting in good faith, this decision highlights the need for careful attention to the position statement filed with the EEOC.  Even if an employer does not hire an attorney to draft the response, it is wise to let the attorney who will be litigating any subsequent lawsuit review the position statement to ensure that there are no obvious pitfalls.  In this case, a review of the position statement would not have caught the problem, which was the failure to identify one of the reasons for the termination.

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