Recent Appellate Division Decision Reminds Employers of the Rewards of Diligence

03.11.2019

The New Jersey Appellate Division’s recent decision in Aryee v. Newark Beth Israel Medical Center on February 20, 2019 demonstrates that even in an increasingly pro-employee environment, employers can prevail in discrimination lawsuits when their supervisory employees and Human Resources Departments take clear and decisive actions. Plaintiff Alfred Aryee claimed that he had been terminated from his position as an accounting cashier at Beth Israel due to his age and national origin. In reality, he had voluntarily resigned after providing conflicting explanations of unexcused absences. Because Beth Israel worked quickly to gather and document his misrepresentations, and its own response, it prevailed on summary judgment and avoided a lengthy, and expensive, trial. 

Facts

Aryee, an American citizen originally from Ghana, worked for Beth Israel between 1989, and 2014, as an at-will employee. In December 2013, he took a ten-day vacation to Ghana and was scheduled to return to work on December 30, 2013. However, he did not return to work that day, nor did he contact Beth Israel with a justification for his absence. His supervisor at Beth Israel telephoned him the same day to inquire as to his whereabouts. Aryee’s wife answered the phone and explained that Aryee had injured his knee.

Aryee was also absent from work the next two days without contacting Beth Israel. He returned to work on January 2, 2014, and his supervisor immediately confronted him. This time, Aryee offered an explanation of his absences that was completely different from the one given by his wife. He stated that he had been bumped from his December 29, 2013, return flight and had not returned from Ghana as scheduled. Beth Israel requested that he provide his passport and boarding pass for corroboration. The next day Aryee, knowing that he could not produce these documents, met with Beth Israel’s Human Resources Department. Beth Israel requested that he put the date of his return in writing. Aryee then admitted in writing that he had, indeed, returned on December 29, 2013, as scheduled.

During his meeting with Human Resources, Aryee fainted and was then admitted to the hospital. Beth Israel placed him on sick leave until January 9, 2014. Before returning from sick leave, Aryee provided yet another explanation for his unexcused absences, that he was overwhelmed by his mother and wife’s respective health issues.

Aryee Resigns His Employment

Upon Aryee’s return from sick leave, on January 10, 2014, Beth Israel informed him that unless he chose to resign, it would involuntarily terminate him from his position. It further advised him that if he resigned, he would receive paid time off, which he would not receive if terminated. Beth Israel gave him until January 13, 2014, to make his decision. Aryee, however, chose to immediately resign by tendering a handwritten note of resignation. Approximately two years later, Aryee filed suit against Beth Israel alleging discrimination on the basis of age and national origin.

The Courts’ Decisions

Aryee, however, could not substantiate his claims during discovery and the trial court granted Beth Israel summary judgment. It acknowledged that Aryee had not been terminated, but instead had voluntarily resigned after misrepresenting the reasons why he missed work. The Appellate Division affirmed, stating that Aryee was an employee at will who had accepted an offer to resign to receive compensation to which he would not have otherwise been entitled. The Court further stated that Aryee could not provide competent evidence to establish a prima facie case of discrimination on account of age or national origin, nor did he rebut Beth Israel’s legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its action.

Bottom Line

This case at the summary judgment and appellate stage seemed “open and shut.” However, the case was won not during the summary judgment phase, or the appeal, but during the eleven-day period between December 30, 2013, and January 10, 2014. Indeed, Beth Israel acted appropriately at the key moments. Aryee’s supervisor immediately reached out for clarification when Aryee did not return to work as scheduled. He then confronted Aryee immediately upon his return and, together with Beth Israel’s Human Resources Department, asked for further clarification and reasonable corroboration. When Aryee fainted, Beth Israel did not take an adverse employment action against him (and open itself up to potential liability), but, instead, properly placed him on sick leave.

When Aryee returned, Beth Israel had written documentation of his conflicting accounts and misrepresentations. Even then, Beth Israel gave him the option of resigning for paid time off. It also offered him several days to decide, eliminating any plausible claim that he had been under duress. Each step of the way, up to and including his resignation, Beth Israel required him to put things in writing.

Beth Israel avoided the unpredictability of trial in 2016, through its action in 2014, to avoid the missteps and indecision that cause factual disputes and allow discharged employees to survive an employer’s motion for summary judgment. Both Aryee’s supervisor and the Human Resources Department knew how to handle the situation. This is yet another reminder that employers can protect themselves from fabricated allegations of discrimination by educating their supervisory employees on how to handle these types of issues.

Tags: Employment Law & LitigationMichael K. FortunatoDina M. MastelloneDiscriminationHuman Resource Lawpaid time offSick leaveBeth Israel

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