Our employment attorneys frequently blog about how employees prove race/color, religion, gender/sex, LGBTQ+ status, national origin, and disability discrimination claims against their employers. (Best Law Read: How Do You Win A Wrongful Termination Claim?; How Do You Win A Discrimination At Work Lawsuit?; What Laws Protect Employees From Race Discrimination?; Does Title VII Prohibit All Discrimination?).
In most cases, the employee must initially establish a prima facie case of discrimination, which includes evidence that the employee was in a protected class; suffered an adverse employment action; and was either treated differently or replaced by someone outside the protected class. (Best Law Read: What Constitutes An Adverse Employment Action Under Title VII?; What does prima facie mean?). Should the employee present sufficient evidence on each of these elements, the burden shifts to the employer to state a non-discriminatory reason for termination or adverse action, and finally the burden shifts back to the employee to establish that the employer’s stated reason is pretext, which is a legal term that essentially means that the employer’s stated reason is not true. (Best Law Read: Employment Discrimination Question: What Is Pretext?).
Despite the typical roadmap above, the employer still has the ability to rebut the employee’s evidence of pretext by relying on the Honest Belief Rule.
What is the Honest Belief Rule?
Best Employment Lawyer Answer: The Honest Belief Rule provides that as long as the employer’s decision maker honestly believed the reason provided for its adverse employment action (termination, hiring, demotion, etc.), an employee cannot establish pretext even if the employer’s reason is ultimately found to be mistaken. In making this determination, the “key inquiry…is whether the employer made a reasonably informed and considered decision before taking the complained-of action. […]. The employer certainly must point to particularized facts upon which it reasonably relied.” Still, the employer’s decision gets deference: “the decisional process used by the employer [need not] be optimal […].” Merritt v. GB Manufacturing Co., Case No. 21-CV-01978, at *10 (N.D. Ohio, June 28, 2022), quoting Majewski v. Automatic Data Processing, Inc., 274 F.3d 1106, 1117 (6th Cir. 2001), Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co., 826 F.3d 885, 895 (6th Cir. 2016), and Tingle v. Arbors at Hilliard, 692 F.3d 523, 531 (6th Cir. 2012).
In other words, even if the underlying factual circumstances surrounding an employee’s termination or adverse action are found to be false, the employer’s actions will get the benefit of the doubt so long as it made a reasonably informed decision based on those facts.
Who decides it the employer really held an honest belief?
Best Workplace Discrimination Attorney Answer: any question of fact regarding whether the employer had an honest belief, must be decided by the jury. On this point, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently held in Briggs v. Univ. of Cincinnati, 11 F.4th 498, 515 (6th Cir. 2021), that:
Plaintiffs ordinarily show pretext “by showing that the proffered reason[ ] (1) had no basis in fact; (2) was insufficient motivation for the employment action; or (3) did not actually motivate the adverse employment action.” Joostberns v. United Parcel Servs., Inc., 166 F. App’x 783, 790–91 (6th Cir. 2006); see also Smith v. Chrysler Corp., 155 F.3d 799, 805–06 (6th Cir. 1998); Manzer v. Diamond Shamrock Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 1078, 1082 (6th Cir. 1994). Under the honest belief rule, a pretext argument falling into the first category—asserting that the reason given by the employer has no basis in fact—may be defeated by conclusive evidence that the defendant “honestly believed” its proffered reason, and that the belief was reasonably based “on particularized facts that were before it at the time the decision was made.” Clay, 501 F.3d at 714 (Wright, 455 F.3d at 708). If there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find the employer did not have an honest belief in its proffered reason that was based on a proper investigation, summary judgment must be denied.
What is an example of when a court overrules the Honest Belief Rule?
Best Employees’ Rights Lawyer Answer:
Recently, in Merritt, the employer moved for summary judgment arguing that the Honest Belief Rule should bar the plaintiff employee’s argument that his termination was pretextual. While the court agreed that the Honest Belief Rule applied to the facts, it nonetheless declined to give the employer’s termination reasoning the benefit of the doubt.
The plaintiff employee in Merritt lodged multiple safety complaints about a coworker. Shortly thereafter, the coworker was subjected to a prank involving t-shirts, a t-shirt tube, along with other items. An investigation by the employer uncovered that another coworker was responsible for ordering and picking up the t-shirts. Although this employee finally admitted to his involvement after initially denying it, the employer suspended that employee while terminating the plaintiff employee due to belief that he was involved in the prank. The employer then terminated the other employee two days later.
In denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the court held that the fact that the plaintiff employee was fired two days prior to the employee who was found to be most culpable and before the employer’s investigation was fully completed completely undercut the employer’s stated reason was the true case of the termination. The court explained that “[a]lthough courts should resist attempting to micro-manage the process used by employers in making their employment decisions, neither should they blindly assume that an employer’s description of its reasons is honest.” Merritt, at *12, quoting Smith v. Chrysler Corp., 155 F.3d 799, 807 (6th Cir. 1998).
The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Martin v. Toledo Cardiology Consultants, Inc., 548 F.3d 405, 414–15 (6th Cir. 2008), is also instructive:
The events involving plaintiff’s termination unfolded quickly on December 1, 2004. Dr. Kabour fired plaintiff shortly after he received her letter. According to plaintiff’s testimony, she “didn’t have a chance to say much of anything.” He told her he considered her actions blackmail and briefly referenced her OCRC charge. While Dr. Kabour testified that the reasons for plaintiff’s termination were the letter or her refusal to do her job, plaintiff’s evidence regarding Dr. Kabour’s comments at the termination meeting put those reasons in doubt. Plaintiff has produced sufficient evidence to place at issue whether Dr. Kabour made a reasonably informed and considered decision before terminating her.
In addition, to the extent the racial slur was a factor in plaintiff’s firing, there is a material issue whether a reasonable and informed decision was made. Although time had passed since that incident, there is a question how reasonable and thorough the inquiry had been. The Bachmeyer declaration reflects that even though she was sitting with the plaintiff at the time the incident allegedly occurred, no one from Toledo Cardiology approached her about what she heard or observed. However, Dr. Kabour did rely on the statement of Dawn Hook, one of his young favored employees, who maintained that plaintiff made the racial slur. A reasonable jury could infer from these facts that defendant did not make a reasonably informed and considered decision before terminating plaintiff on this basis.
What do I do if I am discriminated against by my employer?
Best Employment Law Firm Answer: If you are an employee who feels that you are being discriminated against, or have been wrongfully terminated, you should call the right attorney Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm as quickly as possible to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical). Call our lawyers in Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Toledo and Cincinnati to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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