Wrongful termination occurs whenever you fire an employee for reasons that are illegal and/or against your practice’s policies.
Illegal firings include those that involve discrimination, whether because of race, gender, citizenship status or other class protection. If evidence exists for discriminatory terminations by an employer, this can lead to a charge by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as well as to private lawsuits by affected employees. It is illegal to fire an employee as retaliation, whether it’s because he or she acted as a whistleblower or otherwise reported workplace activities or filed a workers’ compensation claim. You cannot fire someone because he or she refused to follow through on instructions that would require the employee to perform an illegal act or because an employee discussed labor issues with co-workers. It is also illegal to fire someone because of his or her medical history.
Dismissals that take place in ways that run counter to practice policies are also wrongful and include those where appropriate warnings were not given to the employee before termination took place, as just one example. Or, if your employee had signed an employment contract that stated terminations could only be “for cause” and you treated that employee as if he or she was an “at-will” employee, one that could be fired for any legal reason, that is considered wrongful termination.
Yet another wrongful termination category is one that isn’t often discussed but should be: that of constructive dismissal.
Constructive dismissal (or “constructive discharge” or “constructive termination”) occurs when an employer makes working in the practice so unpleasant that conditions become intolerable – and so the employee quits. The concept of constructive dismissal is included in wrongful termination laws in most states. And, in those states, whenever an employee resigns because of genuinely intolerable work conditions, that resignation can be legally overlooked because the employer-employee relationship was in fact severed because of the employer’s actions. Legally, this resignation can therefore be considered a firing, which opens the practice up to a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal.
If a former employee who resigned later claims that he or she did so because of a workplace environment that falls under the umbrella of constructive dismissal, that ex-employee will need to prove that certain conditions existed. These conditions are not uniformly defined from state to state, although they are reasonably similar. Typically, the ex-employee must demonstrate how the practice environment was toxic enough that resigning was something that a reasonable person would do. Being able to prove illegal treatment (such as sexual harassment) or working conditions (such as safety violations) is typically part of the process.
Another typical requirement is that the practice owner or employer knew of these intolerable working conditions and/or wanted to cause the employee to resign. Typically, one isolated act is not enough to convince the courts that a case of constructive dismissal exists. Instead, the former employee must typically show how a pattern of an extraordinarily negative environment at the practice existed for him or her. There can be exceptions, however, such as when an employer becomes physically aggressive or even violent towards the employee.
Note that it is also not enough for an employee to simply state that he or she felt the working environment could no longer be tolerated. The court will instead determine how a reasonable person could be expected to act in the circumstances.
Proactive Actions to Take
As the owner and/or employer of a veterinary practice, what should you do? Starting with the most obvious, do not engage in any sort of behavior that could be construed as actions that could make charges of constructive dismissal appear reasonable to a court. And, although you are not required to provide a stress-free working environment, you are required to ensure that a reasonable environment exists.
Carefully observe what takes place at your practice and address any inappropriate behaviors. And, if an employee comes to you with complaints of inappropriate behaviors, take them seriously, investigate and take corrective actions.
Wrongful Terminations Lawsuits at Veterinary Practices
In 2012, a veterinarian was terminated from her part-time position at the East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control and Rescue Center; the veterinarian – Amy Cangelosi – ultimately filed a lawsuit against the center, claiming wrongful termination for reporting illegal activity. Cangelosi stated that the newly hired shelter director screamed at her after she spoke out against non-veterinary staff performing euthanasia procedures, as well as when she protested an increase in animals being euthanized – unnecessarily so in Cangelosi’s opinion. She also said that, when she spoke out against measures being taken, she was told not to question the director and was even threatened with termination.
Cangelosi and other long-term employees ended up being fired or resigning over their opposition to shelter practices, which included dogs watching other dogs being euthanized and then placed in a pile, deceased animals being beheaded in front of living ones and so forth. One comment made by Cangelosi was that the director “tried to get rid of me by making it miserable,” making the situation a classic foundation for constructive dismissal.
A more recent case involved a housekeeper named Sonia Wescott who was employed by a veterinary clinic in Philadelphia. She worked at the practice for six years, leaving voluntarily when she moved. She was re-hired when she returned to the area but was fired less than a year later after taking a short medical leave of absence.
She had injured her arm at the practice and reported the injury to management. Two days later, she needed to go to the hospital because of cellulitis. She tried to return to work but was sent home when she was still not able to perform her duties. She began taking a medical leave of absence but was told that, if she did not return by a specified date, she would be terminated from employment.
Wescott said that the stated return date was when she needed to have a chest x-ray taken, adding she had a doctor’s note backing her up. She required three more days before returning to work, but she was fired rather than being permitted to add those three days to her medical leave period. She filed a lawsuit because she believed the firing was retaliatory.
Here’s the bottom line. Wrongful termination lawsuits can be costly to practices in time, money and practice reputation, even if the case is dismissed. When the practice loses the case, the effects can be even more devastating.
Losing a Constructive Dismissal Lawsuit
If a former employee successfully proves that he or she was forced to quit, you may be court ordered to pay your employee back wages and benefits as well as lost wages and benefits while your ex-employee looks for new employment. There may be compensatory damages awarded for mental distress suffered by the ex-employee – and, in especially significant cases, the former employee may also be awarded punitive damages. The best defense is to put solid policies into place, including but not limited to termination policies, and ensure they are followed. Cultivate an employee-friendly workplace culture that includes a follow-up process when someone resigns from your practice and consult an attorney before firing someone.