So many of my Favorite Firing stories seem to deal with law enforcement personnel. Perhaps they encounter strange situations on their jobs, so are more likely to get fired for odd reasons. In this case, a North Carolina highway patrolman was discharged for lying about how he lost his hat.
The Facts: Thomas Wetherington was a state trooper with the North Carolina Department of Highway Patrol (the Department). On a windy spring day in 2009, he lost his hat during a traffic stop. He didn’t want to be reprimanded for failing to wear his hat, so he told his supervisor his hat blew off of his head and he could not find it. He later stated he had placed the hat on his patrol car’s light bar, and it must have blown off there. Trooper Wetherington repeated these explanations, or variations of them, for several weeks.
But his explanations were not true. Their falsity was discovered when a person in the car he had stopped returned his hat to the Department in good condition. When confronted, Trooper Wetherington admitted he hadn’t told the truth. At that point, he said he simply hadn’t known how he lost his hat.
He was fired for violating the Department’s Truthfulness policy. The Department’s policy stated:
“Members shall be truthful and complete in all written and oral communications, -15- reports, and testimony. No member shall willfully report any inaccurate, false, improper, or misleading information.”
It took until December 2012 for Trooper Wetherington to get a court ruling on this matter. The Wake County Superior Court in North Carolina found that Trooper Wetherington’s statements were willful and were “unacceptable personal conduct” under the Department’s administrative code. Nevertheless, the court held that Trooper Wetherington should not have been fired. The court found that the trooper’s “untruth” lay only in the hat’s location when he misplaced it.
The Department argued that its officers’ truthfulness in all things is mandatory, because in the future, Trooper Wetherington’s lack of truthfulness in this instance must be disclosed in any criminal case in which he is involved. The court disagreed with that position.
The Superior Court ruled in Trooper Wetherington’s favor, finding that his conduct “did not rise to the level to constitute just cause for dismissal as a matter of law” and the Department’s decision to fire him was arbitrary and capricious.
The Department appealed, but in December 2013, the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court. The parties are currently waiting for a decision from the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The Moral: Tell the truth. In every employment situation, both employees and employer representatives should tell the truth. The truth would avoid many (if not most) of the employment claims that get brought.
Beyond that, however, there are two big issues I see raised by this case. The first is whether any lie by an employee should be grounds for termination, or if there are some lies that are so minor that they should no discipline or only minor consequences.
The problem is that once an employer starts to draw lines, it is difficult to justify where the line is drawn. Employers are taken to task by governmental agencies and courts for inconsistencies in many, many cases. Why should the court hold itself as more able to draw these lines than the Department that employed Trooper Wetherington?
One of my favorite quotes in an employment case is from Elrod v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 939 F.2d 1466, 1470 (11th Cir.1991), in which the Eleventh Circuit said that courts
“do not sit as a super-personnel department that reexamines an entity’s business decisions . . . Rather, our inquiry is limited to whether the employer gave an honest explanation of its behavior.”
So let’s let the real personnel departments make these difficult calls.
In this situation, CBS News reported that
“Wetherington’s firing came at a time when several troopers had faced misconduct accusations, in particular those of a sexual nature. In 2010, then-Gov. Beverly Perdue said she would make every state trooper sign a code of conduct and those that break the rules would be fired.”
Perhaps the Department had good reason in 2009 to hold its officers to a very high standard of conduct.
The other issue I see in this case is that we are now in the middle of 2015, still discussing a relatively minor case that arose over six years ago in the spring of 2009. This certainly isn’t a record in terms of employment litigation. I once handled an employment claim that took over ten years to wend its way through the EEOC to a “no cause” determination, then went into litigation, and was finally settled before there was even a trial setting. There has got to be a better way to resolve employment disputes than to let them fester so long.
What do you think the North Carolina Supreme Court should do in this case?