Monday, July 6, 2009

Acting on inaccurate information is not enough to establish pretext

Four years after an employer terminates an employee for lying, the terminated employee passes a polygraph test that showed that she likely did not tell the lie that led to her termination. Can the employee use the results of that polygraph to show that her former employer had a pretext for a retaliation against her for her prior FMLA-leave? According to an Ohio appellate court in Ningard v. Shin Etsu Silicones (Summit Cty. 6/30/2009) [PDF], the answer is no.

In September 2004, Pamela Ningard took a 12-week FMLA leave from her employer, Shin Etsu Silicones. After missing a day of work in October 2004, Shin Etsu placed her on a last chance agreement because she did not have any remaining paid time off. In December 2004, Shin Etsu terminated Ningard under the last chance agreement after a customer reported that Ningard was spreading false information about the a bonus payment by Shin Etsu to the customer.

Ningard sued for retaliation under the FMLA. Four years after the termination, Ningard passed a polygraph examination, which she claimed showed that Shin Etsu unlawfully terminated her. The appellate court disagreed: “Ningard cannot point to a polygraph examination, which occurred nearly four years after the adverse employment action, to show that Shin-Etsu’s response … was actually a pretext for retaliation. This new information does not show that the reason given by Shin-Etsu was false, but rather that it may have acted upon inaccurate information.” Instead, the three-month gap between the FMLA-leave and the termination, coupled with no other evidence of retaliation, led to the proper dismissal of the lawsuit.

The lesson for employers is on oldie but goodie –  a court will not second-guess a legitimate reason for termination merely because it might later be proven to be incorrect. If the employer harbors a reasonable, good faith business justification, a that fact that it might later be proven to be wrong should not create pretext.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or