Friday, September 10, 2010

When At-Will Employment is NOT At-Will

It is important for supervisors and managers to keep in mind that, in some circumstances, the law may require a strict procedure to follow in the termination of an employee and the failure to comply with any step may lead to costly consequences. In the Public and Safety Labor News journal, July 2010 edition, an article written by Will Aitchison titled “Employer Has Burden Of Proving Disciplinary Notice To Employee” illustrates that the significant consequences imposed on the Pineville, Louisiana Fire Department when it did not provide an employee with a written statement regarding his termination.

On July 23, 2003, firefighter Stephan Jones was involved in an accident while driving a fire rig. Pursuant to Pineville’s substance abuse policy, Jones was taken to a clinic to provide a urine sample for drug testing. Jones submitted a sample that the attending nurse found to be at a temperature too high to achieve an accurate test result. When she requested him to provide her with another sample, Jones refused and left the clinic.

After Jones informed his Captain he submitted an invalid urine test, the Captain warned him he could lose his job. Once the Department learned of the matter, Jones was placed on immediate suspension without pay when he refused to resign. His failure to submit a valid sample led the Department to terminate Jones for insubordination. He appealed to the Civil Service Board. When the Board upheld his termination, Jones filed with the court system.

The Louisiana Court of Appeals reversed Jones’ termination primarily due to a statute which states: “In every case of corrective or disciplinary action taken against a regular employee of the classified service, the appointing authority shall furnish the employee and the board a statement in writing of the action and the complete reasons therefore.” Louisiana Revised Statutes 33:2500(D). Since the Mayor of Pineville failed to provide Jones a written statement regarding the reasons why he was terminated, the City was unable to prove a disciplinary action had taken place against him.

What went wrong? While the Department had grounds to terminate Jones’ employment due to his failure to produce a valid urine sample, it overlooked how essential it is to follow the rules, codes and contracts that can govern employee conduct. Thus, whenever looking to terminate or discipline an employee—supervisors need to make sure that they are aware of any relevant policies or law that would govern the discipline procedure. And, when in doubt, it is a good idea to check with a Human Resource Specialist or attorney.

This blog post was written by Katherine Hanson, Paralegal. Feel free to contact her at

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