A recent court decision shows that the “honest belief” rule continues to be a potent defense for employers responding to employment discrimination claims. And conversely, it continues to be a frustrating hurdle for employees to overcome in proving unlawful discrimination in the workplace.
Specifically, the honest belief of a Wal-Mart manager was found to protect the company from an age discrimination lawsuit.
The Honest Defense Belief
Under this rule, employers may avoid a finding that the claimed nondiscriminatory reason was pre-textual if the employer can establish its reasonable reliance on the particularized facts that were before it at the time the decision was made.
Wal-Mart’s policy calls for an employee to be terminated after four disciplinary actions. Wal-Mart’s Store manager followed the company policy when he fired an employee after she violated a workplace safety rule that resulted in a fourth disciplinary action.
The employee claimed that she learned from a colleague several weeks before she was fired that her manager and the assistant managers wanted her fired and “they were looking for any excuse they could find to get her out of the store.” In this regard, the employee appeared to have argued that some of the disciplinary actions should have been disregarded because they were the product of unlawful discrimination by her managers.
But, Wal-Mart won in District Court after the judge granted its motion for summary judgment. In doing so, the judge found that the employee lacked direct evidence that her termination was based on her age and she failed to establish that Wal-Mart’s stated nondiscriminatory reason for her discharge was pre-textual.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the dismissal. Turning to the Wal-Marts’ “honest belief,” the court concluded that the employee failed to present evidence calling into question Wal-Mart’s stated reason for terminating her, namely, her accumulation of four disciplinary actions.
Further, the Court concluded that even if such evidence was produced, Wal-Mart was still entitled to summary judgment under the honest belief rule.
The employee reasonably relied on the fact that she had three prior written warnings in her record. The employee reviewed each of those warnings, and her manager terminated her employment based on her coaching history and her violation of Wal-Mart safety standards. Even if the employee might have concluded upon closer review that one or more of her warnings should have been removed from her record, ‘an employer’s pre-termination investigation need not be perfect in order to pass muster under the rule’(according to the court).
Responding to and Establishing the Honest Belief Defense
The honest belief rule is especially difficult to overcome for plaintiff employees. To overcome an employer’s assertion of the honest belief rule, there must be evidence that demonstrates the employer did not ‘honestly believe’ in the proffered non-discriminatory reason for its adverse employment action.” But the honest belief rule continues to apply even if the employer’s conclusion is later shown to be mistaken, foolish, trivial, or baseless.
But this doesn’t mean that invoking the honest belief is a free pass for employers; courts routinely refuse to apply the defense where the employer fails to take reasonable action relative to the pre-termination/discipline investigation. Keep in mind, such reasonableness comes down to whether management disregards a readily available and potentially critical piece of information concerning the employee. In other words, if the decisional process was not reasonably informed then the honest belief rule should will probably not apply.
On a closing note, if you are going to have such a “four and out policy” just remember if you fail to do it consistently, you will probably not be successful with your defense.