Monday, July 21, 2008

Some employees should just sail off into the sunset

Every once in a while, you come across a case that, when you read it, makes you wonder why the employee would ever even consider filing a lawsuit. Maurer v. Franklin County Treasurer (Franklin Cty. 7/10/08) is one such case. Chris Maurer was a tax collector in the Delinquent Tax Division of the Franklin County, Ohio, Treasurer's Office. His employer assigned him to work at its booth at the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival. The County's booth was next to the booth for the Catalyst Church. Manning the Catalyst Church booth were two women in their early 20s, Faith and Jennifer Thoms. The opinion describes what happened:

While Faith was engaged in play with some children, [Maurer] came to the church booth and sat in one of the chairs. [Maurer] began playing with the bubble gun that was there for children's entertainment and, as a result, the liquid or bubbles from the gun spilled onto his hands and a map he had. [Maurer] went to Faith and wiped them on her thigh. After calling Faith's sister-in-law Jennifer to him, he wiped the map on Jennifer's thigh and on her skirt; she told him to stop. The two women attempted to resume their activities, but [Maurer] again called Jennifer over to him. He put his hand up the side of her above-the-knee skirt and then wiped his soapy hands down her thigh and her calf. Faith intervened, standing between them while she answered a phone call, and told him to stop. Meanwhile, the woman Jennifer had been speaking with walked away after witnessing [Maurer's] actions. During his time at their booth, [Maurer] repeatedly talked about wanting a massage and inquired who would give him one.

Ultimately, [Maurer] got up from the chair in the church's booth to put candy wrappers in the trash, and both women sat in the chairs so appellant could no longer occupy them. [Maurer] co-worker, Billie Grier, was not present during the incident, as [Maurer] had sent her out of the booth area for various reasons. When Grier returned, Jennifer and Faith told her to tell [Maurer] they were underage so he would leave them alone. Grier advised that supplying [Maurer] with such information probably would not help, as women in the office did not trust him with their teenage daughters.

Jennifer reported the incident to the Treasurer's Office, which conducted an investigation, and, after a hearing terminated Maurer's employment for "immoral conduct, discourteous treatment of the public, mistreatment of the public and sexual harassment."Not surprisingly, the court upheld the termination decision.

Too often, I write about cases in which employers did the wrong thing, either in making the decision to terminate an employee or in not properly investigating a harassment complaint. This case provides a good illustration of an employer that did everything right. It received a complaint of inappropriate conduct by an employee, promptly and thoroughly investigated, and terminated his employment.

This case also teaches a broader lesson. No termination is bulletproof. Even the most rock-solid termination can result in a lawsuit by a disgruntled employee. That fear, however, should not hamstring employers from making appropriate termination decisions based on legitimate reasons.