Employers investigating Title VII discrimination claims should take some comfort, based on a recent Fourth Circuit case, that if they terminate an employee for making a false claim after a good-faith investigation, they will likely not be held liable for a Title VII retaliation claim if the claim later proves to be valid. In Villa v. Cavamezze Grill, LLC, No. 15-2543, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10112 (4th Cir. June 7, 2017), the Fourth Circuit determined that the plaintiff had no Title VII retaliation claim because her employer reasonably believed she had made a false harassment report when it terminated her, even though that report later proved to be somewhat true. In doing so, the court was required to examine the differences in Title VII’s “participation” and “opposition” clauses and determined under the applicable opposition clause that false reports are not protected so her termination could not, as a matter of law, have been caused by her “opposing” prohibited conduct.
Patricia Villa began working for CavaMezze Grill Mosiac, LLC (“Mosaic”) a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cavamezze Grill, LLC (“CMG”), in the spring of 2012 and by October 2013, she was a low-level manager reporting directly to Mosaic’s general manager, Marcelo Butron. In October 2013, she related to Rob Gresham, CMG’s director of operations, that she had been told by one employee, Judy Bonilla, that Bonilla had been offered a raise by Butron in exchange for sex and that she suspected that another, now former employee, Jessica Arias, had left because Butron had made her a similar offer. As part of an investigation into the allegations, Gresham spoke with both the alleged harassment victims, who each denied that any such offers were made. Gresham determined, based on his investigation, that Villa had fabricated the stories and made a false report regarding Butron. Based on the fabricated report, Gresham fired Villa.
Villa later filed a retaliation complaint with the Virginia Office of Human Rights, cross-filed with the EEOC, but the Office of Human Rights never reached the merits of the case and issued Villa a right-to-sue letter. She filed suit in the federal district court of Virginia against several of the CavaMezze related entities (collectively, “Cava”), alleging retaliation under Title VII. Bonilla’s deposition was taken in that case and in it, Bonilla changed her story and stated that she had, in fact, told Villa that Butron had offered her a raise in exchange for sex, even though she also testified that he had not actually ever made such an offer. At the end of discovery, Cava moved for summary judgment, contending that even if it had incorrectly determined that Villa made up her story, her termination did not constitute Title VII retaliation because the true reason for her firing was that Cava believed that she had made a false report.
Villa did not dispute that that was the true reason for her firing but argued that because she acted in good faith when she reported the story to Gresham, her termination constituted illegal retaliation, regardless of what Cava honestly believed. The district court rejected that argument, along with her alternative argument that Cava’s investigation was not thorough enough, because it determined that there was no factual dispute concerning whether Cava’s desire to retaliate against her was the but-for cause of her termination and granted Cava’s summary judgment motion, a ruling which Villa appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
The appeals court began its analysis by noting that Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee either because the employee “opposes any practice made an unlawful practice by” Title VII (the “Opposition Clause”) or “because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under” Title VII (the “Participation Clause”). It then noted: “[u]nder either clause, since the statute only prohibits an employer from discriminating ‘because’ the employee has engaged in a certain type of conduct, ‘Title VII retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action’” (emphasis in original) and went on to state “[i]f an employer, due to a genuine factual error, never realized that its employee engaged in protected conduct, it stands to reason that the employer did not act out of a desire to retaliate for conduct of which the employer was not aware.” It also noted that when an employer has acted for a reason not prohibited by the statute, the court will not judge the “correctness, fairness, or wisdom of the employer’s decision.”
In applying the facts of this case to the applicable Title VII rule, the court first stated that while the participation clause – not applicable here since Villa did not “participate” as defined in the statute – protects a person who testifies, even falsely, from being fired, the opposition clause does not protect the making of a knowingly false statement because an employee complaining of conduct she knows did not occur is not “opposing” an unlawful employment practice and that firing someone for making such a false statement does not run afoul of the opposition clause. In fact, in opposition clause cases, the court must employ a balancing test, weighing the purpose of the act to protect people engaging in reasonable acts opposing discrimination against Congress’s desire not to tie an employer’s hands “in the objective selection and control of personnel.” In other words, “[e]ngaging in knowing fabrications certainly does not amount to ‘engaging reasonably in activities opposing . . . discrimination’; and precluding employers from taking any action against employees who have engaged in such deceit obviously would create enormous problems for employers who would be forced to retain dishonest or disloyal employees.”
To prove her case, the court said, Villa had to show that she was fired because of Cava’s desire to retaliate against her for engaging in conduct protected by the opposition clause. It determined that when Cava terminated Villa, it did not know that she had engaged in protected conduct because it was under the good-faith belief, based on its investigation, that she had made up the story. As such, its reason for terminating her was not retaliatory. It noted that if Villa was fired for misconduct that did not actually occur, it was unfortunate “but a good-faith factual mistake is not the stuff of which Title VII violations are made.”
As such, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in Cava’s favor.