Sometimes, cases that seem like a no-brainer are anything but.  Just ask the Town of Stratford which finally won an appeal to the Connecticut Appellate Court.

The case, Stratford v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 15 (download here), will be officially released next week. 

Firing for lying? Caution ahead

The case arises from the town’s termination of a police officer.  After suffering an epilectic seizure and striking two parked cars, the officer was requested to go to a physician for a fitness for duty exam after his own physician cleared him for work.  

After the independent medical exam, the employer’s HR director “discovered discrepancies between the report and the medical information supplied to the town by [the employee’s] personal physician.”

The employer then charged the employee with violating police department policy for lying during the independent medical examination and he was subsequently terminated after a hearing.

The case went to arbitration. For those who are skeptical of arbitration, you can imagine what happened next.

The arbitration panel reinstated the police officer concluding that termination was “excessive” and that “lying about his physical and mental condition to doctors that could return (or prevent) [him] to work is understandable because [he] wants [his] job back.”

The employer moved to vacate the arbitration decision. Notably, its rationale was limted to police officers, arguing that Connecticut public policy encourages honesty by police officers. The Superior Court disagreed, but the town found a friendlier audience in its appeal to the Appellate Court. 

We agree with the town that these authorities plainly demonstrate a clear public policy in Connecticut in favor of honest police officers and, consequently, against lying by police officers in connection with their employment.

As a result, the Court overturned the arbitration result and the termination is allowed to stand. (No word yet whether this will be appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.)

What does this mean for employers? Two things. Continue Reading Lying to Doctors for Fitness for Duty Exam Can Still Get You Fired… But Only If You’re a Police Officer

George Clooney famously made business travel look (somewhat) cool in the movie, Up in the Air.

Clooney’s character was single (really, would you expect otherwise?) and business travel was a bit glamorous (though a bit tedious as well).

Perhaps not surprisingly, absent from the movie was a discussion of whether business travel could be the subject of a federal lawsuit.

What Would Clooney Think?

A federal court case on Friday, however, had to tackle the issue in Burgos v. City of New Britain (download here).  In Burgos, a police sergeant was ordered to attend training in Alabama.  The sergeant indicated that he had concerns about child care and having to travel out of state for training.

(He was also asked to sign liability releases which he also claimed were discrminatory — but the court easily dismissed those claims).

Nevertheless, the sergeant went and the day after arriving, he informed his employer that he had a family medical emergency (no word on what that emergency was).

Arrangements were made to fly him back to New Britain later that day. He was paid 5 hours of overtime for the 24 hour period he spent in Alabama.

The sergeant filed a federal lawsuit though still.  Among the claims: He alleged (under Section 1983) that because the Supreme Court had recognized a right of association to engage in an intimate relationship with others, he had a claim that the mandatory business travel violated his rights.

The District Court disagreed. It noted that while there is some right recognized by the Supreme Court it wasn’t clear whether this right to familial association existed under the First Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment.  But regardless of which test might apply or the parameters of the right itself, the sergeant’s rights weren’t violated here.

The Court said that the sergeant failed to show that his family relationship ended because of the travel (or was impacted in any significant way, for that matter).  The court also said that he failed to show that there was an undue intrusion into his marriage simple because he was forced to arrange for child care for a period of up to a week because of his wife’s work schedule.

The court added:

Imposing on an employee a requirement that forces the employee to make arrangements for child care for a period of one week or less to accommodate his spouse’s work schedule does not constitute an undue intrusion into the employee’s familial relationship.

The takeaway from this case? The issue of whether business travel violates the federal rights of a public employee is probably not “Up in the Air” anymore.

In light of the horrific workplace shootings in Connecticut earlier this month, I’ve heard people wonder about various steps an employer can take in anticipation of a termination meeting. One question raised is whether it is ever appropriate to have the police nearby or available during a termination meeting.  Or, alternatively, can you have security escort the fired employee from the premises. 

Interestingly enough, the Connecticut Supreme Court has chimed in on this subject in some cases before.

In 1997, the Court in Parsons v. United Technologies Corp., held that "it is not patently unreasonable for an employer to remove a discharged employee from its premises under a security escort."  In so ruling, the court rejected a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim by the employee that the termination was so unreasonable as to warrant a claim for damages.

Similarly, in 2000, the Court in Appleton v. Board of Education, found that being escorted out of the building by police (after being called by the employer) was also not enough to raise a claim against the employer.  

Both of those cases cite a notable District Court case out of South Carolina, Toth v. Square D. Co., which also rejected a claim by the employees for "outrage" when the employer escorted the terminated employee out of the building in front of his peers.

That’s not to say that termination meetings are exempt from possible claims. The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2002 (Perodeau v. Hartford) explicitly said that negligent infliction of emotional distress claims in the workplace can still arise out of a termination meeting. Thus, if the meeting is held in such a way as to be deemed to be "outrageous", it could subject the employer to liability.  But it is rate that a fired employee can actually make a legitimate claim.

What are the lessons to take away from these cases?

  • First, don’t overreact. Most cases do not warrant having security on the premises. 
  • But, in some rare circumstances, having a police officer present on the premises during a termination meeting may be warranted. (Most police departments will offer to have an officer sit in the parking lot if asked by the employer.) 
  • If the employer is truly concerned, it may also be allowable to have a security officer or even police nearby or outside the room ready to escort the employee out immediately upon termination.

These situations require a deft touch and particularized legal advice to ensure that the meetings don’t turn into a circus.