Employment Practices – Part 2

False information provided on an application for employment may constitute grounds for termination.

Church Law and Tax 2005-11-01

Employment practices – Part 2

Key point. False information provided on an application for employment may constitute grounds for termination.

* A Louisiana court ruled that a church-operated school could terminate a teacher who falsely stated on her employment application that she did not consume alcoholic beverages. A woman (Stephanie) submitted an application for employment as a teacher with a church-operated school. On the application she answered “no” to the question, “Do you use alcoholic beverages?” The application specifically stated: “Falsification may be the cause for dismissal.” A few weeks later the school offered her a job to serve as one of its middle school teachers, and she signed an employment agreement to serve in that capacity for a two-year term. The employment agreement made it clear that the school was not only an institution of elementary education; it also was a religious ministry and, as such, its teachers were required to adhere to a strict code of conduct. For instance, the employment contract included the requirement that a teacher must “integrate all instruction with Biblical truth.” Also, a teacher’s employment was subject to the following condition: “The teacher will make personal holiness before the Lord a first concern, and spiritual fellowship with God’s people a priority.”

Soon after Stephanie signed the teaching contract, but before she assumed her teaching responsibilities, she had dinner with two friends at a local restaurant to celebrate her new job. She was observed drinking “four or five beers.” The next day she was overhead laughing and discussing the details of her night out drinking. The school administrator was informed that Stephanie “drank alcohol to the point that she made a public spectacle, and boasted about her drunkenness the next day.” Stephanie was confronted about these accusations, and acknowledged that they were true. As a result, the administrator concluded that Stephanie had lied on her employment application and violated the school’s standard of personal holiness. Stephanie’s employment was terminated.

Stephanie sued the school for breach of contract and mental anguish, and a trial court awarded her $50,000 in damages. The school appealed. A state appeals court noted that Stephanie had stated on her employment application that she did not consume alcoholic beverages, and that the final paragraph of the application stated, “To the best of my knowledge, the foregoing statements are complete and correct and no fact has been withheld that would adversely affect a decision to employ. Falsification may be the cause for dismissal.”

The appeals court concluded:

Stephanie induced school officials into believing that she possessed principles she really lacked. Moreover, she compounded her situation. Namely, there is a provision within her application which explicitly provides that falsification of the application is a ground for dismissal. However, not only did she lie about her consumption of alcohol, a material fact that induced an error, but, additionally, her signature, indicating that her answers and statements on the application were complete and correct when at least one was not, in and of itself, induced error. The fact is that the school felt strongly that its employees possess certain principles, one of which concerned consumption of alcohol. But more importantly, it sought honest employees. It had a right to select its employees according to these standards and to dismiss them for failing to meet them.

Application. This case demonstrates that false statements made on job applications may justify an employer in terminating the person’s employment when the falsehood is discovered. While this conclusion may apply even when the employment application does not specifically state that false information constitutes grounds for termination, it is preferable for employment applications to include a statement (signed by the applicant) to the effect that false information will constitute grounds for termination. LaCross v. Cornerstone Christian Academy, 896 So.2d 105 (La. App. 2004).

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