A recent case illustrates the danger of providing inconsistent or false reasons for firing an employee. If an employee is able to show that the employer provided inconsistent reasonsfor discharge, courts and jurors may conclude that the real reason the employee was fired was improper.
In Marks v. Custom Aluminum Products, Inc., Inc., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48182 (N.D. Ill. 2007), James Marks was fired soon after returning from leave for a shoulder injury under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Marks claimed he was fired in retaliation for taking leave. Custom Aluminum first claimed that he was fired for cursing and throwing a pen at his supervisor, but later claimed he was fired for poor performance and his alleged failure to apologize to the supervisor. The court held that, in addition to the suspicious timing of Marks’ firing, the company’s shifting reasons for firing Marks raised an issue that he was fired for taking leave and not for the reasons cited by the company. The court concluded that this evidence was sufficient to raise an issue that he was actually fired for exercising his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
This case is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. 530 U.S. 133 (U.S. 2000). In that case, Roger Reeves, a 57-year-old supervisor, sued Sanderson Plumbing, claiming that he was fired because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Reeves was fired after working for Sanderson Plumbing for 40 years. Sanderson Plumbing claimed that it fired Reeves for his failure to maintain accurate attendance records of the workers he supervised. At trial, Reeves presented evidence that called into question the truth of the company’s explanation. Reeves presented evidence that the attendance records he maintained were in fact accurate. The Supreme Court held that evidence that the employer’s explanation was false was sufficient to allow a jury to conclude that Reeves was actually fired because of his age. The Court reasoned that “once the employer’s justification has been eliminated, discrimination may well be the most likely alternative explanation, especially since the employer is in the best position to put forth the actual reason for its decision.” According to the Court, this is consistent with the general principal that dishonesty about a material fact is often evidence of guilt.
Together, these cases highlight the importance for an employer to give entirely accurate reasons for discharge. Courts and jurors will view such explanations as evidence that the employee was actually fired for other, improper reasons and will usually hold the employer liable.