A Tigers Curveball

“Put it in writing.” This is common advice in the human resources and employment law arena. Documentation plays a critical role in substantiating and, if necessary, defending employee discipline and terminations. If the written record, however, contradicts an employer’s professed rationale for making a move, the former employee might use that contradiction to establish a triable question of fact that warrants a jury trial. The Detroit Tigers just learned that lesson the hard way.

In a case pending in federal court in Detroit, longtime Tigers employee John Nelson claims the organization unlawfully terminated him due to his age. Nelson joined the club as a bat boy in 1979. Forty-two years later, he had worked his way up the ladder to visiting clubhouse manager. At the end of the 2021 season, his 31-year-old boss fired him abruptly and replaced him with a 34-year-old former subordinate.

The Tigers claimed Nelson had performed poorly and had been criticized by visiting baseball teams. Nelson did have several years of poor performance reviews in his file, but in the two years immediately preceding his termination, his reviews had improved substantially. The inconsistency between those positive reviews and the Tigers’ explanation for the termination lead District Court Judge David Lawson to conclude, “There is plenty of evidence in [the] record from which a jury could conclude that Nelson’s age was the reason he was fired.”

Written job descriptions, policy manuals, and performance evaluations constitute “best practices” in managing a workforce. The only thing worse than failing to document employment practices is a course of conduct inconsistent with what has been put in writing. Employers and managers must conduct honest reviews that accurately and specifically describe an employees’ strengths and weaknesses. If those reviews do not paint a picture of poor performance, the employer should think twice before moving ahead with a termination, especially if the employee falls within a protected group.

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