Municipal Risk Management Tips

Article excerpt

Want to file an employment lawsuit? Get in line. Yes, everybody's doing it. And don't wait until you've been fired either. Why not get the legal wheels moving right now? Who knows, maybe the boss you've sued won't be nice to you while the case is dragging its way through court? Now you can add a claim of retaliation!

OOPS ...

Of course, not every employment suit is without some merit. Not so long ago, the Michigan Municipal League Liability Pool defended a lawsuit filed by a female police officer who claimed that because of her gender she had been repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified males.

Unfortunately, the city's personnel policies hadn't been updated in many years. Its organizational chart listing the order of rank for members of the police department turned out to be a bit of a problem. Yes, the chief was at the top, followed by lieutenant, sergeant, patrolman and then part-time patrolman. At the bottom, however, even lower in rank than a part-time patrolman was "police woman." Needless to say, we had to settle the case for more than the reality of the situation called for.

GOSSIP ISN'T ALL BAD

If there is a silver lining in claims like this, it is that municipal officials talk with each other. When something really bad happens, or an embarrassing situation that might act as a timely warning for others occurs, word seems to get around quickly. A miserable experience for one community can act as an effective loss control tool for many others. Of course, that doesn't do much to ease the embarrassment, cost, negative public scrutiny or career jeopardy suffered by the unfortunate officials against whom the lawsuit was filed. And everybody ultimately pays through higher insurance premiums.

Employment claims represent one of the fastest growing and most volatile areas of municipal exposure. It's clear that all employment litigation can't be avoided. Municipal officials are obligated to discipline and terminate employees at times, and to allocate limited resources in ways that will cause some to believe they were unfairly treated. That goes with the territory. Even doing everything "right" won't guarantee that you won't be sued.

AVOID COMMON MISTAKES

But employment lawsuits are dangerous to defend even under the best of circumstances. What are some of the most common traps that local officials fall into that make this task even more difficult?

* Failure to seek the advice of local legal counsel at an early stage or to heed his or her recommendations. …