Defending Staff Terminations: Past Acts And Documents Can Save The Day

Written exclusively for My Community Workplace for Education

A former principal prevails in a wrongful termination suit against a Los Angeles private school.

The plaintiff worked for the school for more than seven years, first as a teacher then as a principal. In 2014, when informing her superiors that she planned to take maternity leave in October, she alleged the pastor asked if she would return in two weeks. This comment, along with remarks about conducting peer reviews, left the principal concerned about her job position.

Upon return to her position, the plaintiff claimed the pastor made further comments regarding pregnancy, asking if she planned to have any more children. The plaintiff accused the school of terminating her two months later because she took three months of maternity leave, and as retaliation for recently reporting wrongdoing by other employees.

The school argues they based her termination on an act by her of plagiarism. They stated that upon reviewing the self-study book she submitted as part of their accreditation process, they found several sections that were identical to those of a neighboring religious school.

The school also defends its decision by alleging the plaintiff had taken a maternity leave comparable in length after the birth her first child in 2009, with no repercussions. In fact, the pastor promoted her to principal two years later.

The court panel found the school administration had legitimate reasons for the termination and ruled in its favor. "Former principal loses wrongful termination suit against Catholic school in La Mirada" (Feb. 25, 2020).

Commentary and Checklist

What won this matter for the school was their ability to demonstrate wrongdoing on the part of the complainant (plagiarism) related to the job and that her past pregnancy was of no consequence - that the only difference between now and then was the plagiarism, which can be documented objectively.

Legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons and contemporaneous documentation are critical termination defense tools for school employers.

The following questions can help you identify areas of risk associated with staff terminations:

  • Have you followed your organization's established disciplinary steps prior to the termination decision?
  • Is the termination consistent with past practice? If not, can you articulate and/or document a legitimate business reason as to why termination is appropriate this time for this employee?
  • Have you documented all meetings with the staff member and/or any investigations conducted?
  • Does the staff member have a protected status? For example, is the staff member disabled; receiving workers' compensation benefits; on family or medical leave; or did the staff member report wrongdoing recently?
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