You Could Be Damned if You Fire an Employee for (Allegedly) Stealing from the Company.

Posted: September 22, 2011 in Disability Liability, Discrimination, Hiring and Firing, Rogue Employees

Say what? When I advise employers on termination issues, I am most comfortable approving a termination when the employee has committed serious misconduct, such as stealing from the company. However, even though Massachusetts is an at-will state, and employers usually are on safe grounds to fire an employee who has stolen from the company, there are exceptions.

Take the recent case brought by the EEOC against Walgreens. Walgreens fired a cashier who opened and ate a $1.39 bag of potato chips because she was suffering from low blood sugar, on account of her diabetes. The case was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Walgreens apparently considered the employee’s actions to be stealing from the company. It is not reported whether there was an investigation prior to the termination. Some reports suggest that the employee planned to or did pay for the chips after the fact.

I won’t comment on who should win this claim without having more facts. What Walgreens should have done was to conduct an investigation, including especially questioning the employee. Given that she was reportedly an 18-year employee with no disciplinary problems, maybe Walgreens should have given her the benefit of the doubt. If she did plan to pay, then allowing her to grab the chips and eating them (and pay for them later) would likely be considered a reasonable accommodation.

In a written statement, the EEOC wrote that “[a]ccommodating [a] disability does not have to be expensive, but it may require an employer to be flexible and open-minded.” That is good advice, when you have an employee who may be considered disabled (which is now very broadly defined), you should always have reasonable accommodations in the back of your mind.

Another situation where you could be held liable for firing an employee for stealing is the case of disparate treatment. If, for example, you do not fire white employees who are caught stealing, but do fire a black employee who has committed the same offense, you could be held liable for racial discrimination. This was the theory that a plaintiff used in Matthews v. Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., 426 Mass. 122 (1997).

Although the employee lost (after what must have been an expensive legal battle all the way to the highest court in Massachusetts) on factual grounds, the legal theory was sound. Employers must be careful to be consistent with their policies, especially in matters of discipline. Of course, this advice is contradictory to the lesson in the Walgreen’s case. As you will read elsewhere in my blog, sometimes disabled employees have to be treated differently. This fits in nicely with my theme – sometimes you’re damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

The takeaway here is that, maybe, you can never be sure that a termination will not lead to an expensive lawsuit. If you cannot fire an employee after you have determined that they were stealing with the company, when can you fire them? I’m not trying to be alarmist. The vast majority of employees who have allegedly stolen from the company can be safely fired. But, as you can see, that’s not always the case. If you do have any questions on whether you can terminate, and how to do it, call me at 617.338.7000.

By Adam P. Whitney, Esq.

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  1. […] Uses Employee Scheduling Software for Shift SchedulesEmployee Scheduling Software to avoid ConfusionYou Could Be Damned if You Fire an Employee for (Allegedly) Stealing from the Company. if (top!=self) { window.location = […]

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