Timing is Everything!

Timing of a disciplinary or adverse action against an employee is important in avoiding litigation.  If an adverse employment action is on the heels of an employee’s engagement in a protected activity (such as filing a claim with the MCAD), an employer may face litigation for retaliation.

Trainor v. HEI Hospitality, LLC, et al. is a recent example, where poor timing of a decision to terminate an employee cost an employer big time.  In this case, the employee, Lawrence Trainor, a senior executive, was given the option of relocating to a different city or accepting a different position with a substantial pay cut.  

After complaining that the choice was a form of age discrimination, Trainor’s employer informed him that his position had been eliminated, leaving only the offer of a demotion on the table.  Trainor, then 61, filed a charge of age discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).  Three hours after receiving the charge, Trainor’s employment was terminated.

Upon trial, the jury found the company liable for retaliation (but not age discrimination) and awarded Trainor $500,000 in back pay, $750,000 in front pay, and $1,000,000 in emotional distress damages.  Though the court ultimately cut the emotional distress damages to $200,000, for want of solid medical evidence of emotional distress, the poor choice in timing to terminate Trainor ultimately lead to litigation for retaliation, and a hefty sum in damages. 

The court ruled in favor of the employer on the claim of age discrimination, and the employer might not have been held liable for either charge if the timing of the termination had been different.  As an employee’s claim of discrimination may be meritless, as it was here, it is important to take steps to avoid retaliation claims, which frequently accompany discrimination claims.  This finding underscores the need to take appropriate steps when terminating or disciplining an employee.  When in doubt as to the timing of any serious disciplinary action, contact any of the attorneys at Royal LLP at (413) 586-2288.

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