Employer Investigation Thwarts Discrimination Claims


By W. Kevin Smith and Jacob W. Crouse June 12, 2019
Employer Investigation Thwarts Discrimination Claims

​An employer that completed an investigation into a worker's failure to perform an essential job duty before it fired him was entitled to summary judgment on discrimination claims, ruled the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The plaintiff was employed as a network administrator for Cedar Crest College. One of his primary job duties was to maintain a reliable data backup scheme, protecting against the loss of the employer's electronic data. The plaintiff did not implement such a scheme, which led to two successive hard-drive failures resulting in the loss of six weeks' worth of data.

After completing an investigation of the hard-drive failures, the employer determined that the plaintiff had not established an adequate backup scheme. The employer then fired the plaintiff for failing to perform this essential job function.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Involuntary Termination of Employment in the United States]

The plaintiff sued the employer, alleging age and national origin discrimination. The employer moved for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiff's allegations could not support his claims. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the plaintiff appealed that decision to the 3rd Circuit.

In addressing the discrimination claims, the 3rd Circuit found that the plaintiff had not shown that the employer's stated reason for the termination of his employment—a failure to perform an essential job function—was unworthy of belief, an excuse or pretext for a discriminatory motive.

In support of his claims, the plaintiff argued that the employer was partially responsible for the hard-drive failures because it had not provided him with training and the equipment he requested. The court was not persuaded, finding that, even if true, the denial of the assistance requested by the plaintiff did not undermine the stated reason for his termination.

The plaintiff next raised alleged discriminatory comments that had been made to him by supervisors. The court found that these isolated incidents were not sufficient to overcome the evidentiary record's overwhelming support of the employer's stated reason for discharging the plaintiff: He failed to perform an essential job duty by not maintaining a reliable data backup scheme, which resulted in the permanent loss of important data.

The 3rd Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment.

Ortiz v. Cedar Crest College, 3rd Cir., No. 18-1117 (March 12, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Employers should investigate and carefully document any performance issues, make the employee aware of those performance concerns and issue timely discipline as appropriate. By clearly laying out the reasoning for the termination of an employee, after-the-fact claims of discrimination may be better addressed.

W. Kevin Smith and Jacob W. Crouse are attorneys with Smith and Smith Attorneys, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Louisville, Ky.


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