Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Small Lies, Big Verdicts

Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Small Lies, Big Verdicts

Article excerpt

Sometimes employers are tempted to tell employees "little white lies" about the reason for firing them, to soften the blow. For example, an employer may discharge an employee who is incompetent or who cannot get along with co-workers. Rather than embarrassing the employee with the truth, the employer will attribute the termination to company downsizing. This is not a good idea. Under the latest United States Supreme Court ruling, little lies can lead to the exposure of big jury awards.

On June 12, 2000, the Supreme Court decided Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. Sanderson discharged the 57-year-old Reeves, citing his failure to maintain proper time records. Reeves convinced a jury that the real reason was age discrimination. The issue before the Court concerned the type of proof which an employee asserting discrimination must present in order to get before a jury.

The Court held that in many, but not all cases, employees need only establish their basic claim and then show the employer gave a false explanation for the discharge. The Court held that a jury may be allowed to infer that the employer was covering up a discriminatory purpose. But the Court did note there are instances where no rational jury could find discrimination, and in such cases summary judgement (i.e., a judgement without necessity of a trial) for the employer is required.

The Court gave two examples of cases where the employer should be granted summary judgement. First, the record shows that while the employer's stated reason was untrue, there is conclusive proof that the employer's real reason was not discriminatory. Second, the employee only presents weak evidence that the employer's stated reason was untrue, and there is clear proof that no discrimination had occurred. In neither instance should the case be given to a jury.

The following five steps should help keep employers out of court, or help them win any cases that do end up in court:

1. …

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