Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Here are 11.25 million reasons to settle a lawsuit

Before I will bless a client's decision to terminate an employee, I always ask this question: "Tell me about the demographics — race, sex, age, known disability, etc. Did they complain about something at work and when? If I go through your personnel records, will I find someone outside of the to-be-terminated employee's protected class whom you've treated better?"

Here's why I ask that question.

Equinox, a high-end gym, hired Röbynn Europe (Black) to work as a personal trainer. A year later it fired her for excessive tardiness. She claimed, however, that the gym fired her because she complained to management about how her white co-workers spoke about Black women's bodies. She admitted her chronic lateness, and added that she was never late for a client or an appointment. She also pointed to the time records of white co-workers with a similar history of tardiness who were not fired, let alone disciplined.

Upon hearing all of the testimony and reviewing those time records, a jury awarded Europe $11.25 million, a stunning rebuke of Equinox's legitimate non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory justification for the termination. According to Europe's attorney, "The jury sent a loud message to Equinox that there are serious consequences for corporations that permit racist and sexist behavior in the workplace."

That lawyer is not wrong. You can absolutely fire an employee for excessive tardiness after she complains about workplace discrimination. Title VII affirms an employer's right to fire someone for a legitimate non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reason. BUT, you better make darn sure your personnel records don't contain examples of other employees given a pass for the same exact reason. You now have 11.25 million reasons to double- and triple-check before pulling that termination trigger.