A recent decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals provides a reminder that authorized leave — such as maternity leave — does not insulate an employee from termination for poor performance and other inappropriate conduct. Bailey v. Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., Case No. 17-2158 (6th Cir. Apr. 23, 2018) (unpublished).
Michelle Bailey worked as a senior staffing professional for Oakwood Healthcare, Inc. Nearly eight months into her tenure with the Company, Bailey took maternity leave, which lasted three months. Oakwood fired Bailey the day she returned from leave for falsifying information on her job application and for performance deficiencies. According to Bailey, Oakwood had not given her any indication that it was dissatisfied with her performance prior to the termination. Bailey filed suit against Oakwood claiming that termination was discriminatory (based on race, age, and pregnancy) and retaliatory.
Oakwood presented evidence that it terminated Bailey because of poor job performance and falsification of information on her employment application — but that it did not learn of these things until Bailey was on maternity leave. The district court granted summary judgment (and the Sixth Circuit affirmed) based on Oakwood’s evidence that Bailey’s supervisor learned of the performance issues when she assumed Bailey’s duties during Bailey’s maternity leave. After learning of the performance issues, the supervisor reviewed Bailey’s qualifications for the position and learned that Bailey’s application was different from an earlier application she had submitted to Oakwood. Bailey, according to Oakwood, had exaggerated her prior experience and qualifications.
Oakwood’s HR Director confronted Bailey when she returned from maternity leave in early 2014. Bailey did not dispute the inconsistencies in her application, though she minimized the inaccuracies in her file. In its decision affirming summary judgment in Oakwood’s favor, the appellate court stated, “[w]hen an employer reasonably and honestly relies on particularized facts in making an employment decision, it is entitled to summary judgment on pretext even if its conclusion is later shown to be ‘mistaken, foolish, trivial, or baseless.’” Regarding the performance issues, Oakwood learned that Bailey had made errors in processing other employment applications. Bailey did not refute those issues or otherwise provide evidence of pretext.
While Oakwood representatives provided somewhat inconsistent explanations for why Bailey was terminated, the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court that the discrepancies were not material. Bailey had received a positive performance evaluation, but that review was “not necessarily inconsistent with Oakwood’s identification of continuing performance deficiencies after the evaluation.” Moreover, “Bailey’s termination was too far removed from Oakwood’s first knowledge of her pregnancy to suggest a causal nexus between the two.” Even though Bailey’s supervisor had made an inappropriate comment regarding Bailey’s pregnancy at her age, the comment was insufficient to provide evidence of discrimination.