Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How to avoid a discrimination lawsuit in 5 easy steps

  1. Don’t change your explanation about why an employee was fired mid-stream while in the midst of defending a discrimination claim.

  2. Don’t refuse to assign meaningful work to a Muslim employee while at the same time keeping non-Muslim employees busy, or fire an employee for alleged lack of work, while at the same hiring others to perform the same exact assignments.

  3. Don’t suggest to others that you speak over the phone about the employee, which suggests that you are trying to avoid a written record that can later be used against you.

  4. Don’t tell people on 9/11 that “those people don’t belong

  5. Finally, and most importantly, don’t refer to a meeting about a Muslim employee’s supposed poor performance and termination as a “sand-nigger pile on.”

One Chicago law firm, in Hasan v. Foley & Lardner LLP (7th Cir. 12/15/08), failed to follow this advice. Remarkably, the district court, when faced with this mosaic of evidence, granted summary judgment to the employer. The 7th Circuit, however, reversed and sent the case back for trial:

Mr. Hasan submits that the facts in the record, while possibly weak proof of discrimination individually, together would allow a jury to infer that Foley terminated his employment because he is Muslim and of Indian descent…. Those facts include Simon’s and Hagerman’s anti- Muslim comments, Mason’s warning to Jaspan about Mr. Hasan’s religion, the suspicious timing of the downturn in his hours and evaluations following September 11, one partner’s testimony that Foley fired no other associates for economic reasons and did well financially in 2001 and 2002, the Business Law Department’s treatment of its other Muslim associates and Foley’s shifting justifications for firing Mr. Hasan….

The record shows that Simon attended the meeting at which the partners decided to fire Mr. Hasan and that he participated in that decision. That others were also involved in making that decision does not make Simon’s participation irrelevant…. There is also evidence in the record that Simon’s criticisms at that meeting incited anti-Muslim and racially charged commentary from other partners. Vechiola’s description of the meeting as a “sand-nigger pile on” suggests as much, as does Pfister’s comment that Simon had targeted Mr. Hasan just as he had targeted another lawyer, albeit unsuccessfully. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Hasan, the record would allow the rational inference that Simon not only participated in the decision to fire Mr. Hasan but also may have instigated it.

This case might not necessarily break new legal ground, but it is a good reminder that even those that should know better sometimes slip, and how a lapse in judgment can come back to bite an employer.

[Hat tip: MMMG Law Blog]