Terrible employees usually create a lot of drama and disruption and sometimes employers feel trapped on whether they can fire them. They can. And they should. But ideally, they should first issue some form of corrective action.
The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld summary judgment for the employer, Spartanburg Methodist College (SMC), where a former employee claimed that SMC discriminated and retaliated against her under Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act when her contract was not renewed after just one year.
Plaintiff Summer Lashley signed a one-year contract to teach criminal justice courses at SMC. According to the court’s opinion, “Less than a year later, SMC decided not to renew Lashley’s contract and terminated her shortly thereafter. Lashley brought a mix of state and federal law claims against SMC, essentially arguing that her contract nonrenewal and termination were unlawful.”
SMC decided not to renew her contract due to her performance, professionalism, and conflicts with faculty and students, according to the case.
In cases like these the facts are complex. The employee in question had a lot of conflict, demands and complaints. They all can’t be summarized here but suffice it to say she was a source of ongoing disruption, and her supervisor described her as “emotional, volatile, and uncontrollable.” Lashley herself informed her supervisor on “multiple occasions that SMC was not a good fit for her.”
The court concluded, “Lashley’s multiple contentious interactions led [management] to worry that she was not forming constructive relationships with faculty and students and would have difficulty maintaining the professionalism required to perform as a SMC professor. In consultation with other SMC administrators, [Lashley’s manager] decided not to renew Lashley’s contract for the following year.”
Informing her that her contract was not being renewed, her supervisor told her, that she “and SMC were not a good fit for each other.”
Following this conversation, Lashley allegedly made threats including shouting at her supervisor for “betraying” her, telling students she felt like “blowing the school up” and telling a faculty member that “Bad stuff happens when people cross me. My dad says it’s true. They turn up dead.” She allegedly threatened that “evil people” like her supervisor would “get theirs.” She denied all of these statements.
SMC’s president learned of these threats and made the decision to immediately terminate her and not let her work out the rest of her contract. He informed Lashley that her termination was due to “unprofessional, inappropriate interactions” with faculty.
The court held that SMC had “legitimate reasons not to renew Lashley’s contract and to terminate her employment,” including that she was not a good fit for SMC and based on reports of threatening and unprofessional behavior.
The court reasoned it was not unlawful for an employer to conclude that an employee’s “conflicts with faculty demonstrated a lack of conflict-resolution skills needed in a professional setting where interactions with colleagues are frequent and essential.” There was also evidence that Lashley demonstrated a lack of professionalism with students.
The court determined that the motivation by the employer was safety – not retaliation.
Furthermore, the decision-makers didn’t even know about Lashley’s ADA request or her Title IX complaints when the decision was made to fire her. “Decisionmakers can hardly be accused of harboring a retaliatory animus when they were unaware of the actions that allegedly led to the retaliation.
Lashley claimed that SMC’s reasoning for her termination – that she was not a “good fit,” was a “thinly veiled disguise for retaliation.”
On this point, the court concluded that, “Describing an employee as not a ‘good fit’ is an assessment that employers make all the time. Maybe someone’s skills do not match up with the institution’s mission. Maybe someone’s work ethic falls short of expectations. Maybe someone is just not a good team player. Though there may be circumstances where evidence reveals that ‘good fit’ is a subterfuge for discrimination or retaliation, it is also a perfectly innocuous comment that an organization’s collaborative goals would not be furthered” and might be diminished by the employee.
The court added, “Institutional success is often a collective enterprise toward which an employer has entirely reasonable expectations that each employee should contribute.” It added, “SMC’s President explained that a good fit ‘for us is someone who is able and willing to effectively teach the demographics we teach with great success and academic integrity,’ who possesses the ‘[a]bility to be a good colleague with your faculty and staff,’ as well as the ability to exhibit the ‘appropriate behavior with students and a level of professionalism with the appropriate boundaries between students and faculty.’ ”
This was true despite Lashley’s claim to be a whistleblower. On this the court held that Lashley “cannot claim that mantle,” adding, “the record reveals unrelieved personality conflicts, unprofessional favoritisms, unwarranted threats, and contempt for what the defendant institution was attempting to accomplish. We cannot see how addressing those problems was a pretext for retaliatory or discriminatory animus.”
This case should be a must read for any employer grappling with these highly complex and disruptive employees who continuously spin up the organization with never ending demands and disruption. Address these behaviors early (immediately). Institute a zero tolerance for any lack of professionalism or respect. And be consistent in holding employees accountable.