116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas!” Remember that saying?
Generally, an employee’s off-duty conduct is none of the employer’s business. One exception, however, comes when there is some relationship between the off-duty conduct and the employer’s business that poses a risk to the business.
This month, the University of Texas fired Longhorns men’s basketball head coach Chris Beard after his arrest on a third-degree felony domestic violence charge after an altercation with his fiancee, who called 911. The coach was accused of strangling and biting her and causing abrasions. Despite her 911 call, she is now denying these events happened.
When the coach’s attorney disputed the evidence, the school’s attorney cited the coach’s “lack of perspective” as another failure of judgment: "Your letter this morning reveals that Mr. Beard does not understand the significance of the behavior he knows he engaged in, or the ensuing events that impair his ability to effectively lead our program. This lack of self-awareness is yet another failure of judgment that makes Mr. Beard unfit to serve as a head coach at our university."
Before an employer does anything about alleged misconduct, it is important to verify the information’s accuracy to the extent possible. No employer wants to operate under information that is a rumor or an erroneous news report.
If law enforcement records can be checked, the employer should do so. Remember two things:
- The employer’s investigation does not need to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof. Rather, the employer’s investigation should determine if it is more likely than not the events occurred.
- The employer risks a defamation lawsuit if it makes statements about its employee that are not substantially true.
After an investigation substantiates off-duty misconduct, the employer generally has two choices on how to deal with it: keep the employee but impose discipline, or terminate the employee.
If you fire the employee, will the employee have a case?
Most Iowa employees are considered to be employed “at will,” which means they can be fired at any time for any reason, and they can quit at any time for any reason. They may or may not receive unemployment compensation, depending on the seriousness of the off-duty misconduct.
Even “at will” employees are entitled to certain legal protections against unlawful discrimination and also cannot be fired for reasons that violate the law or Iowa’s public policy.
There is not one “wrongful termination” law in Iowa. Instead, these rights are located throughout the case law and in the Iowa Code and include some of the following more popular claims: retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation or other workplace claim; violation of a state or federal discrimination law; breach of an explicit or implied contract of employment or promise of continued employment; or constructive termination.
Each year, hundreds of these types of lawsuits are filed. While many of these claims are tossed out by the court without a trial, defending them costs businesses time and money and result in damage to employee morale and public trust.
Finally, does the employee have a contract that governs their termination?
If so, the employer needs to determine whether the off-duty misconduct is sufficient to support termination under the contract clause. If the employer does not take the contract terms into consideration, the employer could face a breach of contract claim in court.
Wilford H. Stone is a lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids. Comments: (319) 365-9101; email@example.com