Honesty Is Best Policy when Defending Employment Discrimination Claims

By Shannon Kelly Oct 19, 2016
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The "honest-belief" rule remains a viable defense for employers, according to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Reva Richardson began working at Wal-Mart in November 2000. Over the course of her 12-year employment with the company, Richardson's evaluations were generally positive, though she was also subject to disciplinary actions or "coachings." Wal-Mart's disciplinary policy states that an employee receives a level of "coaching" if the individual's job performance does not meet expectations or if the worker otherwise violates company policy. Under Wal-Mart's progressive disciplinary process, employees receive three levels of coaching in writing and the fourth level of disciplinary action is termination.

Richardson received her first coaching in January 2011 when she attempted to influence the exchange of her daughter's damaged computer for a new one. Richardson was issued her second coaching when she failed to properly package a hazardous-material item. She acknowledged the coaching and drafted an action plan to improve her performance. In August 2012, Richardson received her third coaching for violating Wal-Mart's attendance policy by having four unscheduled absences in six months. She acknowledged the coaching document and drafted a second action plan.

In March 2013, Richardson was stacking merchandise when she fell and broke her wrist. Mark Darby, the store manager, reviewed the surveillance video and concluded that Richardson had created a safety hazard through her placement of equipment, which ultimately led to the fall. Darby issued Richardson her fourth coaching for failing to follow proper workplace safety procedures, resulting in her termination.

At the time she was fired, Richardson was 62 years old. She filed suit against Wal-Mart alleging age discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment, finding that Richardson lacked direct evidence to support her claim.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, agreeing that Richardson failed to put forth sufficient evidence to support her claim of age discrimination, but noted that even if such evidence was presented, Wal-Mart was still entitled to summary judgment because it had an "honest belief" in its asserted nondiscriminatory reason for Richardson's discharge.

Under the honest-belief rule, an employer may avoid a finding of discrimination if it reasonably relied on particularized facts to support its decision for termination. The court noted that Darby followed company policy when he reasonably relied on the fact that Richardson had three prior coachings on her record before terminating her employment. Thus, the court held that Wal-Mart was entitled to the protection of the honest-belief rule.

Richardson v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 6th Cir., No. 15-1142 (Sept. 9, 2016).

Professional Pointer: When terminating an individual for work performance issues, employers should make sure that the worker's performance has been thoroughly documented throughout his or her term of employment.

Shannon Kelly is an attorney with Allen Norton & Blue, P.A., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Winter Park, Fla.

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