A good-faith belief that an employee violated work rules may not be enough to defeat a discrimination claim


Earlier this month, a federal appellate court poked holes in what many considered an infallible employer defense to employee discrimination claims known as the “good-faith belief” doctrine.

Generally, when an employer believes that an employee engaged in behavior that warrants termination of employment, an employee who claims discrimination will lose as long as the employer’s belief was in good faith — even if the employer is mistaken.

Discrimination is unlawful, but being wrong about the reason(s) for terminating employment isn’t.

However, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals applied some guardrails to this doctrine when it concluded that when an employer’s adverse employment action is “so inextricably related to” the employee’s protected class, “they cannot be considered independently of one another.” In those cases where the reasons for firing an employee are “not sufficiently independent from” the employee’s protected class, the good-faith belief will not preclude a discrimination claim.

English, Eric. Explain this to us in plain English.”

I’ll give you two examples:

First, suppose an employee claims to have missed work due to his disability. The employer, however, considers the absence “unexcused” and investigates it. During the investigation, the employer learns that the employee planned to play hooky from work, gamble at a casino, and encourage coworkers to skip work and join him. The employer also learns that the employee actively discouraged his colleagues from working overtime. So, based on uncontroverted evidence, the employer fires the employee. In this case, even if the employer was wrong about why the employee missed work and otherwise sought to cause a work slowdown, the reasoning, like the justification for termination, was unrelated to the plaintiff’s disability. Therefore, its good-faith belief eviscerates the employee’s disability discrimination claim.

Now, I’ll change the facts. Here, an employee has a diabetic episode, which leaves her hospitalized and causes her to miss work for a few days. On the days that the employee misses work, she does not call out from work. So, the employer fires her for not following its call-out rules. However, suppose the employee’s disability precluded her from calling in. In that case, she may be able to demonstrate that her disability is “inextricably related to” the decision to end her employment — especially, for example, if the employer did not end her employment following earlier instances when she failed to call in unrelated to her disability.

The takeaway here is that unexcused gambling boondoggles rarely end well for employees. But, when an employee’s disability causes them to violate company policy, the good-faith belief defense may not apply.

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