Years ago, I used to discuss employment cases I worked on with my kids at the dinner table. I didn’t use names, but I did describe the circumstances. “Don’t ever lie to your employer. You can get fired for lying,” I told them.
A recent court case from Ohio proves I’m still right. In Mattessich v. Weatherfield Township (Ohio Ct. App. Feb. 8, 2016), a police officer who had taken leave for depression was later terminated for lying about his medical leave. This is yet another “favorite firing” case involving law enforcement personnel.
The Facts: After Richard Mattessich, a police officer with the Weathersfield Township Police Department in Ohio, applied for a promotion to sergeant, he alleged that another applicant had been late to work. A video proved that Officer Mattessich’s allegations were false. The Chief of Police considered terminating Officer Mattessich at that time, but gave him a second chance. The Chief did require Officer Mattessich to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. A health care provider concluded that Mattessich needed sick leave, and he was off work for nine months.
Officer Mattessich passed a fitness-for-duty exam and returned to work. Nevertheless, others on the police force thought he lacked confidence and even seemed “dazed” and “out of it.” Officer Mattessich said he was fine and denied having any mental health counseling while on leave.
A few weeks later, his superiors learned that Officer Mattessich had in fact been treated for depression with counseling and medication. He admitted he had lied earlier about not receiving any treatment. Shortly thereafter, his employment was terminated for lying. The Chief of Police indicated that he could not trust a dishonest employee, because honesty and integrity were essential parts of the job for police officers.
Mattessich filed a disability discrimination lawsuit alleging that he had been discharged because of his mental health condition. The trial court granted summary judgment to the employer and dismissed the case, ruling that dishonesty—not disability—was the motivation behind the termination.
On February 8, 2016, the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the termination. Although Mattessich’s “depression” was mentioned during the termination discussions, it was only mentioned because it was related to the plaintiff’s deception. There was no evidence that his mental health status was the cause of his terminaiton. Just because the employer knew about some mental health condition did not mean that any subsequent adverse decision was the result of discrimination.
The Court of Appeals found that the police department had provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Officer Mattessich’s termination. It therefore became the plaintiff’s responsibility to prove that the reason was pretextual. The Court stated:
To establish pretext for a claim under the Civil Rights Act, “a plaintiff must demonstrate that the proffered reason (1) has no basis in fact, (2) did not actually motivate the employer’s challenged conduct, or (3) was insufficient to warrant the challenged conduct.”
Officer Mattessich failed to provide evidence to support pretext under any of these three categories.
One of the three judges on the Court of Appeals did dissent. She argued that the employer regarded Officer Mattessich as disabled and that there were questions of fact about the officer’s dishonesty that should have survived summary judgment.
The Moral: What I told my children is still good practice at work—do not lie to your employer.
This case involved law enforcement, where honesty is critical for the success of the police department’s work with the public and in courts. But honesty is critical in every employment relationship. Every employee owes his or her employer a duty of loyalty, which encompasses veracity. Every employer should have a policy prohibiting employees from lying to their supervisors.
And every employer should investigate allegations that an employee has lied—not only when the lies involve things as critical to the employment relationship as fitness for duty and leaves of absence.
Of course, communicating employment policies and consistency in applying those policies are critical. In this case, the Court of Appeals found that the Weathersfield Township Police Department had disciplined other officers caught committing acts of deception. So consistent application of the policy was important.
As noted above, there was a dissent in this case. These situations can go either way for the employer. The more the employer can distance the termination from the finding that the employee is disabled, and the more similar situations involving employees not in the same protected class as the discharged employee, the better the case is likely to go for the employer.
Involving Human Resources professionals and employment attorneys in these situations prior to discharging the employee is always a best practice.
But in this case, the biggest issue is that it took five years to get an appellate ruling that the employee could legitimately be discharged for dishonesty.
When have you had to deal with dishonesty in the workplace?