Employment LawScene Alert: Documentation Matters!

If you call your employment lawyer and tell her that you want to terminate an employee for performance issues, one of the first questions will be “What documentation do you have?” Recently, the Seventh Circuit confirmed just how crucial documentation can be when defending an employment lawsuit.

In Rozumalski v. W.F. Baird & Associates, decided August 22, 2019, the employee had been sexually harassed by her supervisor, who was investigated by the employer and terminated once the investigation confirmed the allegations. However, after her supervisor’s termination, the employee was eventually terminated from her job and filed a federal complaint alleging that she had been retaliated against for her original sexual harassment claim and for other complaints stating that her previous supervisor who had been terminated had negatively influenced her new boss in retaliation. The company testified that the employee was terminated for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, namely, performance issues. The company stated that the employee struggled with her business development responsibilities, submitted a report that was grossly below company standards and required significant reworking, and was consistently late to work. These performance issues were documented in her written performance evaluation and listed as “needs improvement.” The employee then continued to receive negative performance evaluations, which provided specific examples to support the company’s concerns about her work, and was eventually placed on an Employee Improvement Plan. When she violated a term of her Employee Improvement Plan, she was terminated.

The Seventh Circuit acknowledged that a prior complaint of harassment could impact a victim long after the incident. However, it found that the employee’s new supervisor was not aware of her original harassment complaints until at least five months after the first negative performance review and, therefore, could not have been motivated by a retaliatory animus. Additionally, the individual who made the ultimate decision to terminate the employee’s employment did not know about the original complaints and was motivated solely by the employee’s violation of the Employee Improvement Plan. Finally, the Seventh Circuit observed that the employee’s complaints that her new supervisor was negatively impacted by her previous supervisor could not have been a basis for retaliation because her documented performance issues predated her complaints.

This case stresses the importance of employers properly documenting employee performance issues and creating honest performance evaluations that accurately describe and document employee performance issues. Performance evaluations should be focused on critical performance issues measured against the employer’s legitimate business expectations. When an employee fails to meet a legitimate business expectation, the performance evaluation should reflect that deficiency. Too often, employers want to terminate underperforming employees without supporting documentation. For example, when an employee’s most recent performance evaluations are reviewed prior to termination and there is absolutely no indication or evidence of poor or underachieving performance, the company’s business records do not match the reality of the employee’s performance, and the termination decision becomes more problematic.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision could have been much different for this employer if the employee’s performance issues had not been documented or had not been documented accurately. As demonstrated, good and accurate documentation is vitally important—it may be the difference for your company in winning or losing a lawsuit.

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