Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Just being in a protected class is never enough to protect an employee’s job

When Wisconsin Physicians Service Insurance Corporation terminated Mary Lou Stelter from her sales position, she claimed disability discrimination relating to a workplace back injury and her related two-month leave of absence.

WPS, on the other hand, argued that Stelter’s manager, Wendy Harings, expressed concerns about Stelter’s performance deficiencies and absenteeism four years before the back injury; thus, any negative marks after her injury were merely a continuation of her long history of on-the-job issues and not evidence of discriminatory animus.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with WPS and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Stelter’s lawsuit.

The reasons Harings gave for terminating Stelter, including a pattern of absenteeism and deficiency with large group insurance products, were mentioned in Stelter’s performance reviews before her injury at work occurred. Therefore, no reasonable jury could conclude that Stelter was terminated on account of a disability. The incidents Stelter provided are more consistent with Harings’s continued concerns of Stelter’s absenteeism and work deficiency rather than discriminatory animus.

It’s always risky firing an employee shortly after a leave of absence for an illness or injury. As this case illustrates, a documented pattern of performance issues that starts before the leave and continues after the leave is a winnable defense to the employee’s likely lawsuit.

* Photo by National Photo Company / Public domain