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Treat Your Employees Fairly – Even After They Sue You

Posted on

by Adam Shafran

In a recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, a judge found an employer in contempt of a protective order after the employer fired one of its employees for testifying against the employer in his deposition.

The employer, a demolition contractor, terminated one of its employees less than two months after he was deposed in the underlying matter, based on the employer’s assertions that the employee had been insubordinate and acted in an unsafe manner on a company job site. The employee, believing his termination was in retaliation for testimony given at his deposition that was adverse to the employer, asked the court to hold the employer in contempt. The court agreed. After holding a contempt hearing and noting that the court was “reluctant to interfere with employment decisions,” the court ultimately found the employee’s testimony was highly credible, the employer’s basis for termination was not believable, and the employee “would not have been fired had he not been participating in the suit.” As a result, the judge held the employer in contempt.

As a result, the judge awarded the employee multiple remedies, including over $4,000 of back pay, six months of future wages totaling over $20,000, and attorneys’ fees and costs of approximately $46,000. In total, and without the employee bringing a separate lawsuit, the employer was required to pay over $70,000 due to its conduct.

This case serves as an important reminder that the anti-retaliation laws in Massachusetts are strong and employers can face serious consequences if they fabricate reasons to terminate an employee who is participating in a lawsuit. Indeed, the Massachusetts anti-wage retaliation law is so broad that it covers any conduct by the employer that could be viewed as retaliatory; not just termination. The law specifically states, “[n]o employee shall be penalized by an employer in any way as a result of any action on the part of an employee to seek his or her rights under the wages and hours provisions of this chapter.”

This does not mean an employee is free to do whatever he or she pleases simply because they are a plaintiff or party in a lawsuit against their employer. Employees remain obligated to follow all company policies, and companies are free to terminate any employee who violates them. The law is meant to prevent employers from treating employees who are part of a lawsuit against the company differently than they treat an employee who is not a party to the action.

Ultimately, deciding to terminate an employee who is a plaintiff or party in an active lawsuit poses many risks. If your company ever finds itself in this situation, Rudolph Friedmann attorneys have considerable experience guiding companies through this process to minimize legal risk and exposure to the greatest extent possible.