Employers faced with the inevitable task of terminating an employee’s employment often inquire whether to provide the employee with written reasons for the termination; or, if they are required to provide an explanation of the termination, they ask what should be included in the explanation. Except in a limited number of states (and except where an employment agreement provides otherwise), a written statement of reasons is not required. Indeed, the general rule of thumb is to not provide written reasons. Perhaps the employer in Peace v. Premier Primary Care Physicians, S.C., should have followed the rule of thumb. In a recent decision, a federal court in Illinois ordered the disclosure of patient contact information because the employer had indicated in its termination letter that patients complained about the plaintiffs.
In Peace, two former employees sued seeking unpaid overtime and damages for alleged retaliation. During discovery, plaintiffs sought the names and contact information of defendant’s patients. The basis for the request was that the termination letter said, among other things, “Patients have complained that you are rude and unhelpful to them on the phone and when they are in the office. Patients have reported not receiving reminder calls for their appointments.” The court noted that the letter contained other examples of patient complaints, but that none of the patients was identified. The employer objected to the disclosure of patient names contending that “their patients’ privacy rights outweigh the plaintiffs’ interest in obtaining discovery. . . .” The court rejected the employer’s argument and ordered the disclosure of the patient contact information noting that privacy concerns were minimal (since plaintiffs were not seeking actual medical records) and were outweighed by plaintiffs’ right to relevant discovery.
The fact that the court ordered disclosure of even limited protected health information highlights the importance the court attached to the contents of a written employment termination letter. A termination letter can become the proverbial “Exhibit A” should an employment claim be filed, at least in connection with requests for discovery. Anything contained in the letter will be the subject of scrutiny and discovery. Had the employer not provided the letter (or, provided a letter with a more general explanation), it is likely that the plaintiff would not have had such a focused target of discovery, one that in this case is likely to affect the practice’s business beyond its HR department. Of course, the information may have come out at some point in the case, but by that time, it may have been late in discovery where plaintiff would have had less time to explore these issues, or the case may have settled. The bottom line here is to give serious thought before providing a written statement of reasons and, if doing so, consider carefully the letter’s contents.