“Papering” an employee’s personnel file: Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde

“Papering” an employee’s personnel file: Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde

 Employers are advised to document the job performance of their employees. The documentation of job performance is particularly important when an employer is accusing an employee of poor job performance.  Write-ups and negative job performance evaluations can justify adverse actions, such as, denial of promotion, demotion, or termination.

However, unjustified write-ups and negative job performance evaluations may be evidence of discrimination and retaliation.  A careful examination of the personnel file portrays an employee who goes from being Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde: a good employee suddenly becomes a bad employee.  This can raise suspicion and expose an employer to liability.

“Papering” occurs when an employer deliberately packs an employee’s personnel file with unjustified write-ups and negative job performance evaluations in order to justify an adverse action.  For instance, an employer can “paper” an employee’s personnel file by the following methods:

  • An employer may hold the employee to a higher standard than “similarly situated employees”.
  • An employer may scrutinize an employee.
  • An employer may singled out the employee for criticism or disciplinary action.
  • An employer may create a hostile work environment that interferes with the employee’s ability to perform their job.
  • An employer may solicit criticism of the employee from their co-workers and supervisors.
  • An employer may incite the employee’s co-workers and supervisors against them.
  • An employer may deliberately give the employee false write-ups and negative job performance evaluations.

Employers can use “papering” to cover-up discrimination and retaliation. Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046 (8th Cir. 1997) (“…he received much lower performance evaluations than he had received before filing his employment discrimination charge…  There was also evidence that Nash Finch had ‘papered’ his personnel file with negative reports, including two written reprimands.”); Etefia v. East Baltimore Cmty. Corp., 2 F.Supp. 751 (D. Md. 1998) (the court determined that the issue of whether documentation of the employee’s job difficulties was part of a plan to terminate him based on discrimination precluded summary judgment.)

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

What is “materially adverse” when establishing a retaliation claim?

Three elements of a prima facie retaliation case.

The Supreme Court expanded the scope of retaliation in Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).  To establish a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must show:

1)         they engaged in protected activity;

2)         the defendant took action that would be “materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant”; and,

3)         there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the asserted adverse action.

What does “materially adverse” mean?

Materially adverse means harmful enough to “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  Burlington, 548 U.S. 68.

Suspending supervisory responsibilities or significantly reducing responsibilities.

A suspension, demotion, or termination can be materially adverse.  However, taking away an employee’s supervisor duties or significantly reducing their responsibilities can also be materially adverse for the purpose of establishing a retaliation claim. Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 364 (D.C.Cir.2007) (“[W]ithdrawing an employee’s supervisory duties … constitutes an adverse employment action.” (quoting Stewart, 352 F.3d at 426) (internal quotation marks omitted)); id. at 365 (observing that “reassignment… with significantly diminished responsibilities” would constitute an adverse employment action); Kessler v. Westchester County Dep’t of Soc. Serv., 461 F.3d 199 (2d Cir. 2006); Davis v. City of Sioux City, 115 F.3d 1365 (8th .Cir. 1997)

Reprimand or negative job performance evaluation.

A reprimand or negative job performance evaluation can be materially adverse. Nye v. Roberts, No. 03-1683, (4th Cir. 2005) (unpublished) (In this case, however, the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find that, in the context of the Board’s system of progressive discipline, the reprimand and performance evaluation resulted in a material change in Nye’s employment status.); Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046 (8th Cir. 1997) (“…he received much lower performance evaluations than he had received before filing his employment discrimination charge…  There was also evidence that Nash Finch had ‘papered’ his personnel file with negative reports, including two written reprimands.”)

Pursuing false criminal charges.

Pursuing false criminal charges against an employee can be materially adverse. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“An employer can effectively retaliate against an employee…Berry v. Stevinson Chevrolet, 74 F. 3d 980, 984, 986 (CA10 1996) (finding actionable retaliation where employer filed false criminal charges against former employee who complained about discrimination).”; Berry v. Stevinson Chevrolet, 74 F.3d 980 (10th Cir. 1996) (“Other courts concluding that Title VII extends to former employees have held that the filing of charges can constitute the requisite adverse action.”); Beckham v. Grand Affair of NC, Inc., 671 F.Supp. 415 (W.D.N.C. 1987)

Creating or perpetuating a hostile work environment.

Retaliatory harassment can constitute an adverse employment action. Von Gunten v. Maryland, 243 F.3d 858, 865 (4th Cir. 2001); Noviello v. City of Boston, 398 F.3d 76 (1st Cir. 2005) (“The weight of authority supports the view that, under Title VII, the creation and perpetuation of a hostile work environment can comprise a retaliatory adverse employment action under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).  See, e.g., Von Gunten v. Maryland…”).

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

 

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