Employers have an obligation to fully investigate employee conflicts within their workplaces. But the information gathered and actions taken from such investigations can lead to further legal complications. Case in point: Cox v. Onondaga County Sheriff’s Dept.
The plaintiffs were white officers of a sheriff’s depart- ment who had shaved their heads in solidarity with a co-worker (and plaintiff) who was undergoing chemo- therapy. Later, they claimed that they were victims of rumors that they were “skinheads.” The plaintiffs alleged that these rumors were started by an African-American officer who had approached them and asked them why their heads were shaved.
The plaintiffs filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming the rumors constituted racial harassment. In the EEOC complaint, it was stated that an African-American officer had accused them of being skinheads in a hostile, face-to-face confrontation.
Thereafter, interviews were conducted by the employer’s Professional Standards Unit (PSU). During the interviews, none of the plaintiffs claimed to have been called a skin- head to their face by another officer.
They said, however, that there had been rumors to that effect and some officers had made nonhostile inquiries as to why they’d shaved their heads. Thus, the plaintiffs were informed that disciplinary actions against them were being considered based on the falsity of the EEOC filing.
Another claim filed
The plaintiffs then filed another EEOC claim against the department, alleging that, when they were threatened with discipline for having made false complaints, they were being retaliated against for having complained of racial harassment. The district court entered summary judgment in the employer’s favor, finding there was no evidence that the plaintiffs had suffered any adverse employment action.
The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that several aspects of the PSU’s investigation amounted to an adverse employment action. Thus, they contended, the fact that they were informed that they could be brought up on criminal and administrative charges constituted retaliation.
On that appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The appel- late court held that an employer’s investigation of an EEOC complaint alleging racial harassment, without resulting in adverse job consequences for the complainant, cannot sustain a retaliation complaint because employers have a right to investigate in order to answer an EEOC complaint. If employers didn’t investigate such allega- tions, it could be viewed as indifference or acquiescence to racial discrimination.
Reviewing an important precedent
An important precedent to Cox v. Onondaga County Sheriff’s Dept. (see main article) is the 2000 case of E.E.O.C. v. Total System Services. Here, the female plaintiff participated in her employer’s investigation into complaints that a male supervisor was sexually harassing female employees. During an interview, the plaintiff made false statements about witnessing the alleged harassment. For this, she was terminated.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) later brought an action on the plaintiff’s behalf, alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII. The district court granted summary judgment in the employer’s favor. The EEOC appealed, alleging that the plaintiff was fired for participating in the employer’s investigation and opposing what she believed was an unlawful employment practice (sexual harassment).
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the plaintiff’s participation in the investigation wasn’t protected under the participation clause of Title VII’s retaliation provision. Even if false statements made in the context of an EEOC charge cannot be grounds for dismissal or discipline, the court found that this level of protection isn’t afforded to false statements made outside of that context — such as an internal investigation conducted apart from a formal EEOC charge.
Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit held that the plaintiff could be discharged based on her employer’s good faith belief that she’d lied during an internal investigation. In other words, the employer offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination.
Regarding the plaintiffs’ claim that their interviews were more confrontational than that of the African-American officer they accused, the Second Circuit stated that there was good reason for the African-American officer’s inter- view to be nonconfrontational. That is, his interview was conducted after the plaintiffs’ interviews in which they revealed that no one had heard him make any comments about the plaintiffs being skinheads. Thus, the interviews weren’t considered to be adverse employment actions.
Finally, in addressing the threat of false report charges, the Second Circuit applied a “good faith standard.” The court held that, where the plaintiff has proffered sufficient evidence that a threat of discipline was triggered by a “good faith” claim of discrimination, a prima facie case of retaliation is established.
But, in this particular case, the court found that the employer’s statements about disciplinary charges were reasonable. After all, the plaintiffs had intentionally given false statements to the EEOC, which led to a misconduct complaint being filed against them.
The Second Circuit also held that informing the plaintiffs of the possible results of the investigation of their miscon- duct was fair and necessary. Moreover, the false charges against the African-American officer could be viewed as racial harassment against him, which the department would have had to investigate.
As an employer, bear in mind that, if you attempt to discipline an employee who has filed a falsified claim of discrimination, you’ll risk a retaliation claim like this one. An employee needs to show only a good faith basis for having made the charge — however untrue. The fact that a discrimination claim is later dismissed doesn’t necessar- ily give you license to discipline the employee for having filed a false charge.