Good Faith Belief = No Pretext

Michael Newman
May 5, 2008 — 2,250 views  
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A case recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, involving an employee who was discharged because of reports that he had been sleeping on the job, reinforces the idea that the relevant inquiry in such a case is not whether the stated basis for termination actually occurred, but whether the employer had a good faith belief that it had occurred. This holding, which is in line with case law from a variety of other jurisdictions, further buttresses the concept that, in order for an employee to recover for an alleged discriminatory or retaliatory termination, he must present actual evidence that the employer possessed discriminatory or retaliatory motivations, and a mere attempt to show that the employer was mistaken about the misconduct that resulted in discharge is insufficient in that regard if the employer had a good faith belief that such misconduct took place.

In Soto v. Core-Mark Int'l Inc., the plaintiff, a discharged employee, sued his former employee, claiming that he had been discharged because he had complained about workplace discrimination and had filed a national origin discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The plaintiff also claimed that, although his employer's stated reason for his termination was that he had been caught sleeping on the job, he had been "merely resting on the floor to stretch his back." The plaintiff therefore claimed that his employer's stated reason for firing him was merely a pretext for discrimination.The court, however, held that even if the plaintiff had managed to present sufficient evidence to show that he did not actually sleep on the job, that would not equate to sufficient evidence of pretext.

The evidence that the plaintiff presented, despite potentially creating a factual dispute about whether he was actually sleeping, does not create such a dispute about the employer's good faith belief that he was sleeping on the job. The employer's belief was based upon statements from other employees and a reasonable investigation into the matter. Accordingly, even if the plaintiff managed to prove that he had not been sleeping, he still could not present evidence of a retaliatory motive, given the uncontroverted evidence that plaintiff's discharge was motivated by the employer's honest belief that he had fallen asleep while on duty. The import of this case centers on the idea that what is important insofar as discipline and discharge cases are concerned is that the employer possessed a good faith belief that the conduct for which discipline or discharge is merited occurred, and that attempts by an employee to prove that the misconduct never took place should not be relevant to the inquiry. As long as an employer makes a reasonable investigation and comes to an honest conclusion, it has greatly reduced its potential for liability in this type of case.

Michael Newman

Michael Newman is a Partner in the Cincinnati office of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, where he chairs the firm's Labor & Employment Appellate Practice Group. He represents a broad range of business clients, both large and small, in the state and federal courts.