The work of a Utah professor of environment, health, and safety was funded primarily by federal grants to his university. But when the auditors wanted to know how some of the funds were being used, he dragged his feet in responding. That was the beginning of the struggle.
What happened. "Samuel" joined the University of Utah in August 2003, first as an independent contractor and then as a full-time staffer. He was program manager for emergency preparedness, taught courses, and was paid by a grant from the Dept. of Homeland Security. In April 2006, his boss, Sharon, asked internal auditors to review the use of the department’s grants. The auditors’ preliminary report found "systematic problems," leading to mistakes on individual grants.
Sharon asked Samuel to look into it and report to her as quickly as possible. By 3 weeks later, he still had not responded, and she met with him. He offered a spreadsheet with just the beginning of his response. She asked him to provide the big picture, which he said he’d do within 3 or 4 days. On May 31, Sharon decided to fire Samuel. She asked HR’s permission but did not yet tell him.
On June 5, he asked HR for leave under the Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA), to help his wife with childcare. Some 2 days later, the request was granted. He still he did not respond about the audit; worse, when he left work, Sharon found, he removed everything from his office, including the university’s laptop, and wiped all his electronic files off the school’s server. Repeatedly urged to return school property, Samuel returned some papers on June 13, but not those related to what he’d (allegedly) done on the audit. He learned then that he’d been fired.
The university and its police force repeatedly contacted Samuel, who eventually returned the laptop, but he had wiped it clean not only of his reports but also of the software the school had installed. A few months later, he sued, charging wrongful termination and interference with and retaliation for his FMLA request. A judge in federal district court ruled entirely for the university, and Samuel appealed to the 10th Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.
What the court said. Samuel had dropped all but the FMLA charges to appellate judges. Firmly noting that the decision to fire him was made in writing May 31, and he’d asked for leave several days later, they said he had no case. Sabourin v. University of Utah, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, No. 10-4150 (4/6/12).
Point to remember: This case serves as yet another example of the benefits of properly and promptly documenting employment decisions.