Court says, yes, you can fire a worker whom you believe made up a discrimination claim at work.

Got that?

It’s not just people who fabricate complaints of discrimination at work, but those whom you believe fabricated discrimination claims.

Everybody, roar it with me, “Yassssss!

In Villa v. Cavamezze Grill, LLC (opinion here), the plaintiff was a low-level manager at a restaurant. Around Halloween in 2013, the plaintiff reported to the Director of Operations that one of the plaintiff’s direct reports had been subjected to quid pro quo sexual harassment. Actually, the plaintiff didn’t use the words “quid pro quo.” That was fancy lawyer speak for you can have a raise if we Netflix and chill — said the lawyer.

Once word of the plaintiff’s complaint made it to the top, the CEO ordered an investigation. As part of that investigation, the company interviewed several folks, none of whom corroborated the plaintiff’s story. Indeed, as a result of the investigation, the company concluded that the plaintiff had fabricated the complaint. So, it fired her.

(It later came out in a deposition that the plaintiff may have been telling the truth, after all).

The plaintiff sued for retaliation.

Title VII retaliation claims require proof of a desire to retaliate.

[Cue music]

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law that makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an individual that:

  1. opposed anything that violates Title VII; or
  2. made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII

The first part is known as the “opposition clause,” while the second is the “participation clause.” (This is an opposition clause case. More on that distinction in a bit…)

In analyzing retaliation claims under Title VII, The U.S. Supreme Court has held (here) that “retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action.”  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals took it one step further (here):

Because Title VII prohibits discrimination only when it results from particular, enumerated motivations, when an employer articulates a reason for discharging the plaintiff that the statute does not proscribe, it is not our province to decide whether the reason was wise, fair, or even correct, ultimately, so long as it truly was the reason for the plaintiff’s termination.

But, what about those conniving employers out there…

None of you, of course.

Still, in a brief filed on behalf of the plaintiff, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued that the court shouldn’t limit retaliation liability under Title VII to cases in which the employer was actually motivated by a desire to retaliate. Doing so would lead to conniving employers twisting their handlebar mustaches and firing complainers while hiding their true retaliatory animus. Consequently, this would chill employees from complaining about discrimination.

But the Fourth Circuit flipped that argument on its head:

Taking Villa and amici’s argument to its logical conclusion … would “mandate” that all employees who have reported any Title VII violation must be granted permanent immunity from any adverse action taken by an employer for any reason in the future, which would surely encourage even more reporting of discrimination.  But even Villa and amici do not argue that that course is justified. 

And then the Fourth Circuit slammed the door:

Because the statute’s focus is the employer’s subjective motivation for the action, the facts the decision-maker actually perceived matter.  If an employer, due to a genuine factual error, never realized that its employee engaged in protected conduct, it stands to reason that the employer did not act out of a desire to retaliate for conduct of which the employer was not aware.

Put another way, there is no Title VII violation if an employer fires an employee because the employer honestly believes that the employee fabricated a complaint to HR about discrimination. With the caveat that, unlike the opposition clause, the participation clause clearly and unambiguously protects false statements made in bad faith.

Employer takeaways:

  1. This is a Fourth Circuit decision. If you conduct business in MD, NC, SC, VA, or WV, you’ve got some clear guidance under federal law. Elsewhere — and even under state or local law in these five states — your mileage may vary.
  2. Never fire an employee for filing a  participating in a Title VII action (e.g., filing a Charge with the EEOC).
  3. Individuals who complain in good faith about discrimination at work — even the ones that participate in a Title VII action — are not bulletproof. At-will employees can be terminated for any reason or no reason. Well, as long as it’s not a Title VII reason. For example, if any employee participates in a workplace investigation on a Monday and punches a co-worker on a Tuesday, then she can be fired on a Wednesday.

 

 

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