Can a Company Fire an Employee for Taking Company Records that Help the Employee’s Discrimination Case?

Can a company fire an employee for taking company records that help the employee’s discrimination case? This is the question posed by the case of Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., A-51-09, which was argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court on March 9, 2010. As reported in the New Jersey Law Journal, the Court is likely to answer this question in the affirmative. If it does, New Jersey employers will get a powerful new weapon to use against employees who may have taken confidential records during their employment.

The plaintiff in the Quinlan case is a Human Resources professional who felt that her employer was discriminating against her on the basis of gender. She secretly copied about 1800 pages worth of confidential company records. She then retained a lawyer and gave the records to him. Her lawyer filed a lawsuit and returned the records to the employer during the course of the litigation. When the employer found out about the records, it fired the plaintiff. The plaintiff then added a claim for retaliation to her gender discrimination complaint.

A jury found in favor of the plaintiff on her retaliation claim, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. The Appellate Division held that the plaintiff should not be permitted to benefit from her “theft” of confidential documentation.

On appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the plaintiff’s attorney argued that Ms. Quinlan was acting in good faith when she took the documents, and that she should not be penalized for doing what she thought was the right thing. The Court seemed to disagree, indicating that it would encourage “employee theft” if Ms. Quinlan were permitted to win her retaliation claim under these circumstances.

I would advise any New Jersey employees to consult with a knowledgeable and experienced employment attorney before undertaking any kind of “investigation” or “evidence gathering” on their own. New Jersey is an “at will” employment state and you do not want to give your employer a legitimate excuse to fire you. If you have a good discrimination claim, your lawyer will obtain the documentation you need to win the case by using the proper legal processes.