Following a three-week, in-person trial, T-Mobile received a complete defense verdict from a King County Superior Court jury earlier this month. The case offers important takeaways for employers on handling disciplinary action and on trial strategy.
The plaintiff was a 13-year T-Mobile employee who started as a customer service agent and had been promoted multiple times. Within two months of a November 2018 promotion, she took a month-long leave of absence. After she returned, following complaints from team members and others about her leadership and performance, she was placed on a performance improvement plan. Two months later, seeing no improvement in her performance, T-Mobile terminated her employment. She filed suit in January 2020, asserting a number of discrimination claims and seeking $4 million plus emotional distress.
T-Mobile was represented in the case by Davis Wright Tremaine. On summary judgment, T-Mobile secured dismissal of the plaintiff's claims for sex discrimination, disability discrimination, and failure to accommodate. At trial, the court granted judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff's claims of retaliation and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
That left only one claim for the jury to decide: whether T-Mobile and the plaintiff's manager regarded the plaintiff as disabled when they 1) placed her on a performance improvement plan or 2) terminated her employment. After five hours of deliberation, the jury found that neither T-Mobile nor the named manager discriminated against the plaintiff.
The case presents some important takeaways:
- When issuing disciplinary action such as a performance improvement plan, employers should ensure that the PIP is clear and straightforward and identifies objective, measurable goals. Employers need to show they not only gave an employee the chance to improve, but also provided clear direction about how to improve.
- Always videotape the key depositions in the case, especially plaintiff's. It is very powerful to be able to play back admissions during trial to show tone, attitude, and misrepresentations.
- Always tell a story of the case that is more than "…we did not do anything wrong…." Employers must make the case about the plaintiff so when the jury begins deliberating, they are talking about what the plaintiff did wrong—and what the company, while it may not be perfect, did right.
- Witness preparation is the key to a successful outcome. Witnesses do not need to be perfect—they just need to come across as unbiased and human.
The diverse Davis Wright Tremaine team that secured this outcome for T-Mobile included Portia Moore, Vicky Slade, and Grace Thompson, all from the firm's Seattle office. Giancarlo Urey and Rebecca Shelton also provided support.
Portia was recently named a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and is a longtime board member of the Loren Miller Bar Association, the nation's largest organization of African American attorneys. Vicky is board president of Legal Voice and last year was named one of the country's 40 Best LGBTQ+ Lawyers Under 40 by the National LGBT Bar Association.