What to Do With a Fired Employee’s Things?
Throwing them out is not the correct answer, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In Robinson v. Priority Automotive Huntersville, Inc., two employees resigned from their jobs and sued their employer. In addition to claiming a racially hostile work environment (which was dismissed by the Fourth Circuit for failing to meet the standard for a HWE claim under Title VII), the employees brought a rather unusual claim under state law – conversion – based on the allegation that the employer threw out several items that they owned and kept at their desks at work.
Under North Carolina law, a conversion claim exists when a defendant wrongfully takes another’s property, resulting in an alteration of the property’s condition or the owner’s loss of the property. In this case, the employees owned the items, and the Fourth Circuit recognized that it was possible for a jury to find for the employees on their conversion claim if the evidence showed that the employer had, in fact, thrown out the items.
Although North Carolina law applied to this case, we note that the same principles generally apply to conversion claims in other states. So, the lesson here is that whatever personal property an employee leaves behind should be documented, boxed up carefully, and delivered to the employee. In our experience, although we have not seen formal conversion claims, we certainly have dealt with unhappy former employees who believed that the employer did not return all their property – sometimes because the employer thought it was junk that could be thrown out. It is best, particularly with contentious terminations, not to create additional areas of conflict.