Maybe the 37th Time is the Charm

Much of my legal practice involves defending companies against employment discrimination charges.  In so doing, I sometimes come across the “professional plaintiff” – an individual whose sole “job” appears to be suing potential, current or former employers in the hopes of extracting a monetary settlement.

Recently I discovered that a plaintiff who filed a discrimination charge against one of my clients had previously filed 36 discrimination charges against other companies.   In fact, over the last 10 years this individual has claimed that employers discriminatorily failed to hire him or fired him because of either his: (1) age; (2) race; (3) disability; (4) color; (5) sex; (6) arrest record; and/or (7) retaliation.  It reminds me of that old joke:  “I’m not paranoid – everybody’s just out to get me.”

We will, of course, use plaintiff’s prior litigation history to show his claims are frivolous and an abuse of the legal system.  Unfortunately, however, the company will still be burdened with the time and expense of defending itself.

What can we learn from this litigation nightmare?

(1)  Hiring decisions are critical.  An employer can’t ask an applicant whether he or she has sued other employers for discrimination in the past.  But if an employment application lists numerous short-term employment stints, or in response to the “reason for leaving” question the applicant cites “dispute with supervisor” or “forced to quit,” do not hire the person.

(2)  People sue for anything, and often.  Given how easy it is to file a discrimination charge, often with no “downside” to the applicant or former employee, litigation is not seen as a “last resort” anymore.  Rather, it has become the go to strategy for many individuals facing a workplace issue.  According to the EEOC there were over 99,000 discrimination charges filed against employers in 2012.  If your company hasn’t been sued for discrimination yet, it’s likely only a matter of time.

(3)  Don’t assume the government cares or will help.  People get their day in court.  Agencies like the EEOC will  accept a discrimination charge even if the plaintiff is a “serial filer.” The agency may be more skeptical of the merits of the charge, but the company will still have to expend signficant resources challenging those merits.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter
:  @HRGeniusBar &  @wagelaws

HR Tip – Save Those Voicemails

Probably every Human Resources Manager has received a voicemail from an employee advising them he is “quitting.”  Sometimes the employee even “thanks” the HR Manager and/or the company for the “opportunity,” and does not say anything negative about his employment experience.

I strongly recommend saving such voicemails from any employee the company suspects is a “litigation risk” (in their original audio format) for at least a year, and preferably two.

Why save them?  Employees often conveniently change their “stories” or recollections after quitting.  Such voicemails present compelling evidence to defeat an employee’s later claim that he was “fired” or “forced to quit”  (aka “constructive discharge”).  They are particularly useful in knocking down unemployment compensation claims and previously unreported claims of harassment.   The employee is left to “explain away” his own statements, and will not appear credible in doing so.

Why save them that long?  Under most federal and state laws, claims for discrimination, harassment and retaliation generally have to be asserted within 300 days of the alleged adverse employment action.  Retaining the voicemail for at least a year will ensure you have it available if a claim is filed.  Keeping them two years is preferable because claims under the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) can be asserted 2 (or even 3) years later.

Bottom line:  don’t hit the “delete” button, and you may “save” your case!

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter
@HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws

Fight Club’s First Rule of HR – You DO NOT Talk About Your Lawyer

Remember the classic scene in the movie Fight Club?  Brad Pitt, founder of the “Club,” is talking to prospective pugilists about its rules.  He boldly declares the First Rule of Fight Club: “you do not talk about Fight Club.”  He then gives the Second Rule: “you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.”  Needless to say, everyone got the point – keep your mouth shut to avoid trouble.

In homage to Fight Club’s simple genius, I offer a modified version of this Rule for Human Resource Managers:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER.

You see, part of my job as a management side employment lawyer is preventative in nature:  I  consult with companies before they make a termination decision.  I do so in order to help them (hopefully) avoid lawsuits, and to put them in the best position to defeat any litigation that ensues.  Among other things, the client and I discuss the rationale(s) for the termination decision, the performance history of the employee, the existence (or lack thereof) of supporting documentation, whether the company is following its own disciplinary policies and/or practices, and the legal risks involved if the employee falls into a “protected” classification under discrimination laws.

These attorney-client discussions are treated under the law as “confidential” – they are protected from involuntary disclosure by the “attorney-client privilege.”  I cannot ethically disclose them.  Likewise, the company representative I am talking with cannot generally be forced to reveal them at deposition, in an interrogatory answer, or at trial.  This protection is critical, as it allows the client and I to engage in candid discussions of sensitive issues, without the fear of later disclosure.

Unfortunately, HR managers often violate my modified Rule. They say things like “we checked with our lawyer and he told us ….,” or “we will talk with our lawyer and get back to you”  in termination or disciplinary meetings with employees, or when discussing “reasonable accommodations” with them. To a degree it is understandable, as part of the normal  “give and take” of a conversation with an employee.

Moreover, on their face such remarks seem harmless.  But in reality, they are subtly dangerous.  Why? First and foremost, the client may have just waived the attorney-client privilege.  Remember, the privilege is for the client’s benefit.  But it can also be waived by the client. Any statement that references the content of a client’s prior conversation with their lawyer will likely be construed (or at least argued) as a “waiver” of the privilege.

If waived, the employee’s lawyer could ask the client probing questions about the details of that conversation, including all statements made before the decision to discipline, discharge or not accommodate.  This could result in the disclosure of comments that, even if not acted upon by the client, will be presented as evidence of a discriminatory or retaliatory intent, and/or at least an awareness of the potential for litigation.  Such statements will be trumpeted as “smoking guns” for the company’s “real” motivation behind its decision.

Second, such comments often “raise a flag” in an employee’s mind.  The employee thinks his situation has become “serious” –  for goodness sake, the company just told him/her that its lawyer has become involved!   With this knowledge, the employee usually does one of a couple of things: (a) he becomes very sensitive and files a “retaliation” claim for any adverse employment action taken against him, believing it was caused by his raising of a “legal” issue; or (b) goes out an immediately retains his own lawyer to advocate on his behalf; or (c) both.

None of these outcomes are positive for the company.  So apply the First Rule of HR:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws