A recent case issued by the Tenth Circuit (which covers Colorado) provides a good reminder about the importance of good documentation, and following your employment policies. In Peterson v. Exide Technologies, the Tenth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Exide Technologies, dismissing Peterson's Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and wrongful discharge claims as a matter of law. Peterson was involved in a forklift accident, in which he was injured. After the accident, he was placed on FMLA leave for 10 days. After investigating the accident, the employer determined that Peterson had violated its safety policies. Therefore, Exide terminated Peterson four days after the accident, while Peterson was on FMLA leave.
Peterson then sued, claiming his discharge violated his rights under the FMLA, and gave rise to a common law claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The district court and the Tenth Circuit disagreed. Peterson had a history of documented safety violations, and he had no evidence that the stated reason for his discharge–yet another safety violation–was a mere cover-up (or pretext) for an unlawful motive. Importantly, the court rejected Peterson's argument that Exide had failed to follow its own progressive discipline policy. The court noted that Exide's progressive discipline policy was discretionary rather than mandatory, and it did not prevent Exide from considering past disciplinary actions, even if they were dated.
Peterson also claimed the incident giving rise to his termination was minor, and that he was not at fault for the accident. Again, however, the court rejected his arguments, reasoning that Exide could legitimately rely on the final accident given Peterson's record of unsafe work performance. Thus, even though Peterson was terminated while on FMLA leave, his claims were dismissed. There are several important lessons from this case, including:
1. Document performance and behavior issues as they occur.
2. Review your employment policies to ensure they do not create mandatory language with respect to progressive discipline, or any other language that might limit your right to terminate an employee.
3. It is possible to discharge employees while on FMLA leave, but be cautious when doing so. Such a decision has a heightened possibility of leading to litigation. Even if, as in this case, you can successfully defend the case, consider whether there is another approach that might allow you to avoid litigation altogether.