- The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has let stand a $334,500 jury verdict for a 61-year-old employee who the company fired over a single incident of backdating a form (Westmoreland v. TWC Administration LLC dba Time Warner Cable, No. 18-1600 (4th Cir., May 22, 2019)).
- Glenda Westmoreland, who had worked for a Time Warner Cable subsidiary for more than 30 years, was fired after instructing a subordinate to backdate a form to reflect the date of a related meeting, rather than the date the form was actually completed. TWC initially told her the infraction wasn't serious but later concluded that she had violated company policy prohibiting false statements and created "trust and integrity" issues. While walking Westmoreland to her car, a supervisor told Westmoreland, "You’ll get another job. Just go home and take care of those grandbabies," according to court documents. Westmoreland sued, alleging age discrimination.
- A jury found for Westmoreland and, on appeal, the 4th Circuit upheld the verdict. TWC’s "about face" on the disciplinary matter could give rise to a "suspicion of mendacity" about the company’s rationale for firing her, the court said. It also noted that company representatives had testified that there were lesser forms of discipline available. As a result, the court said, the jury could reasonably find that Westmoreland’s firing for one infraction that did not require termination was "such an extreme overreaction as to be pretextual." In addition, the jury could have found that the "grandbabies" comment was made by a supervisor who harbored age bias, the court said.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act is the federal law that forbids age discrimination. It applies to employers with at least 20 employees and protects employees and job applicants who are at least 40 years of age and older from workplace discrimination.
Employers, of course, have a right to make their own personnel decisions if there is a reasonable basis for the action. But uneven discipline and discriminatory comments can undermine an employer's decision. Preparedness and good communication are vital, Eric Meyer, partner at FisherBroyles, previously told HR Dive. Documentation can be especially important and can make or break an employer's defense, Allison West of Employment Practices Specialists said during a recent Society for Human Resource Management conference.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has explained the importance of even policy enforcement and discipline, too. If two employees commit a similar offense, an employer may not subject them to different forms of discipline on the basis of protected factors such as age or race, according to the commission.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included contradictory references to the appeals court. Westmoreland v. TWC Administration LLC dba Time Warner Cable was heard in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.