Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Five action points when your company is sued

Over the course of the past years, I’ve written a lot about best practices to prevent employee lawsuits. The fact remains, though, that no matter how good a company’s HR practices are, and no matter how proactive a company is with its legal compliance, a certain percentage of terminations and other employment decisions will turn into lawsuits. It is the simple the cost of doing business in 2009, especially as the economy worsens and more employees look to judges and juries for assistance.

The following are five things a company should be actively thinking about when it receives the inevitable lawsuit:

  1. Relevant documents should be identified and preserved. Employment lawsuits are not as document intensive and some other disputes in which businesses are involved. Nonetheless, the documents are crucial. They provide a roadmap to the justification for the termination or other employment action, and the reasonableness of the employer’s actions. Key documents (personnel files, handbooks, other policies, investigative reports, emails, and other communications) should be gathered and set aside. Also, a litigation hold should be put in place to ensure that no relevant documents are accidentally destroyed.

  2. Under Ohio’s discrimination law, managers and supervisors can be personally liable for their own individual acts of discrimination. Often, they are sued in their individual capacity along with the company. Potential conflicts of interest among any individual defendants and the company must be evaluated very early in the case to ensure that conflicts of interest do no exist. If they do, one attorney cannot represent all defendants. If conflicts are not identified until well into the case, the lawyer may have to withdraw, which could irreparably damage the defense.

  3. Fight the urge to take it personally. When an ex-employee claims discrimination, companies can lose sight of the fact that lawsuits are part of doing business. Employer often shift into attack mode because they are accused of being bigots. There is a huge difference between aggressively defending a case and attacking for the sake of attacking. The former is smart strategy; the latter often leads to greater costs by losing focus. It also risks taking action that could be viewed as retaliatory and bring further claims. Extra care must be taken when the plaintiff is current employee, as opposed to an ex-employee.

  4. If your company has Employment Practices Liability Insurance, timely file a claim with the insurer. If you have purchased a rider that permits you to select counsel, make sure you enforce that right. If you have not purchased that protection, consider having a candid conversation with the insurance company about the counsel they will choose for you.

  5. Hire experienced employment counsel to defend the claim. Employment law is highly specialized. Retaining counsel that knows that ins and outs of this area of law is the best way to keep costs down as much as possible, while at the same time doing everything possible to aggressively defend the company.