A case involving a former jail officer shows how keeping detailed, contemporaneous records of complaints of discrimination and unfair treatment can help defend against employee claims.

A federal jury in Wisconsin rejected a former jail officer’s claim that her termination was the result of sex discrimination and retaliation. The jury apparently found the plaintiff’s allegations of discrimination and retaliation, made only after her termination, lacked credibility and did not account for, or excuse, her failure to adequately perform her job.

In Waite v. Wood County, Wisconsin, 3:16-cv-00643 (W.D. Wis. 2018), Janis Waite alleged that, despite performing her work tasks in the same manner as her male colleagues, she received a negative performance review that stated she must show “some improvement to meet requirements” regarding job knowledge, dependability, and organizational ability. Waite further alleged that she had been singled out for unfair punishment when, unlike her male colleagues who engaged in the same behavior, she was suspended for personal use of a jail fax machine in one instance, and issued a written warning for using profanity over a jail speakerphone while a civilian was present in another instance. Finally, Waite claimed her employer’s reason for terminating her employment (disposal of a daily list of razors distributed to inmates before those razors were collected/returned) was mere pretext because she was not assigned to razor duties on that day.

Wood County disputed Waite’s contentions and presented evidence showing that:

  • Waite had been progressively disciplined because of ongoing performance issues;
  • Waite’s employment was terminated after repeated conduct violations and her refusal to fix her mistakes or modify her behavior; and
  • Waite never complained to human resources or her managers about alleged unfair or differential treatment until after she was fired.

Ultimately, the jury believed the County, rejected Waite’s claims, and rendered a verdict for the County.

Generally, a jury is less likely to find discrimination where an employee fails to raise complaints in a timely manner, when the employer was in a position to address those concerns. Furthermore, if the employee cannot show that she lodged complaints, or otherwise engaged in protected behavior, prior to termination, the chance of bringing a credible retaliation claim will be low. For these and many other reasons, human resources personnel, and managers in general, should keep detailed, contemporaneous records of any complaints of discrimination and unfair treatment.