Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Best of -- Document, document, document

As the record reflects, there was a myriad of problems with Plaintiff's job performance and treatment of his subordinates that justified Defendants' decision to fire Plaintiff. This, however, is not what Defendants told Plaintiff during their final meeting. Defendants did not tell Plaintiff he was being fired for poor performance, but rather because of an unspecified "personality conflict." While the law does not specifically require an employer to list every reason or incident that motivates its decision to terminate an employee, we are skeptical of undocumented accounts of employee conduct that may have been created post-termination. Under the facts of this case, however, ample evidence exists that indicates that Plaintiff's performance was inadequate to meet his job requirements. In sum, Plaintiff has not put forth sufficient evidence for a jury reasonably to conclude that Defendants did not have an honest belief that Plaintiff performed his job duties poorly.

So said the Sixth Circuit last week in Abdulnour v. Campbell Soup Supply Company, a national origin discrimination case brought by an Iraqi national fired by Campbell Soup for job performance that was less than "M'm M'm Good". The Sixth Circuit upheld the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit on summary judgment because Abdulnour could not come forward with any evidence, other than his own subjective disagreement, that Campbell Soup did not honestly believe in the reasons proffered for his termination. Clearly, however, as the quote above demonstrates, the appellate court was troubled by the lack of documentation in Abdulnour's personnel file for the alleged performance deficiencies. It is safe to assume that if Abdulnour could have come forward with any evidence at all to support his allegation of pretext, the court would not have hesitated to ding the company for its poor documentation.

The lesson to be learned is basic, but one that cannot be repeated enough. Any employer's greatest defense against a claim of discrimination is a well-documented history of performance problems to support the termination, coupled with comparable treatment of similarly situated employees. When in doubt, document all performance problems with all employees. If the discipline or counseling is oral only, document that fact also. Have all employees sign off on all such records, and if the employee refuses to signify the receipt of the discipline, document that failure as well. The Sixth Circuit in the Abdulnour case cannot be any clearer that when an employer relies on undocumented accounts of misconduct to support a termination, it is fair for the court and a jury to draw the inference that those accounts were created post-termination. The Abdulnour decision is the anomaly, and almost universally cases with poorly documented personnel files will not end well for the employer. Campbell Soup dodged a bullet; do not put your company in similar risk.