Sex, lies, but no videotape. A Virginia restaurant was faced with this juicy but difficult harassment investigation involving several current and former employees. After sorting out the sordid claims, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that employers who honestly believe, after investigation, that employees have made false harassment complaints are permitted to use their business judgment to discipline or terminate the person who they believe “cried wolf.” Villa v. Cavamezze Grill, LLC, No. 15-2543 (4th Cir. 6/7/17).
Patricia Villa worked at the Cava Mezze Grill restaurant in Merrifield, Virginia and, by October 2013, was working as a low-level manager. In her role, Villa supervised several employees, including former employee Judy Bonilla. Villa, in turn, was supervised by General Manager Marcelo Butron.
On October 28, 2013, Villa called management to report that Bonilla had told her (Villa) that Butron offered Bonilla a raise in exchange for sex. Villa added that she believed Osmar Marinero, another employee, was present during Butron’s alleged proposition to Bonilla. During the call, Villa further explained that she suspected that Butron had made a similar offer to Jessica Arias, another former employee.
During the investigation that followed, management contacted and spoke with each purported victim (Bonilla and Arias) – neither of whom worked for Cava at the time – as well as to the alleged witness that the complainant identified (Marinero). The Fourth Circuit’s opinion does not explain whether management spoke with Butron. None of these individuals corroborated Villa’s report: Bonilla denied both that Butron ever made such an offer and, critically, that she ever told Villa that that had happened. Arias laughed when asked about the allegations and “added that whoever told [management] that was lying.” Marinero also knew nothing about the allegations.
Based on what management learned, it concluded that Villa had fabricated her allegations. In a joint meeting with Villa and Butron, management told Villa that it had spoken with Bonilla and Arias and they both denied the allegations against Butron and that it was, therefore, terminating her for making a false report. Villa responded by apologizing, and she did not deny making up the report.
After Villa filed a Title VII retaliation lawsuit, Bonilla stated during her deposition that, in fact, she did tell Villa that Butron offered her (Bonilla) a raise for sex. Bonilla reiterated, though, that that proposition never truly happened.
Cava argued that even if it was wrong that Villa made up her allegations, Cava sincerely believed that she had done so at the time and, therefore, its decision to terminate her was not made with retaliatory animus. Significantly, Villa did not dispute that management’s conclusion that she had made up her allegations was the reason for her termination. The district court ruled in Cava’s favor and dismissed the case. Villa appealed.
The Fourth Circuit unanimously agreed with Cava. As the Court noted, in Title VII retaliation claims, the focus is on the employer’s desire to retaliate, i.e., the subjective motivation for its action, so “the facts the decision-maker actually perceived matter.” In other words, as long as the reason given by the employer “truly was the reason for the plaintiff’s termination,” that is enough for the employer to prevail.
The Court continued that employees are not protected under Title VII from making knowingly false allegations, because employees who do so merely pretend to oppose unlawful discrimination. Indeed, if employers could not take action against someone who makes up claims of discrimination, that “would create enormous problems for employers who would be forced to retain dishonest or disloyal employees.” Id. at 11.
That said, the employee need not know that the allegations are true, either. Instead, she must subjectively believe that what she is saying is true. Although the Court did not explicitly rule on the issue, there was evidence that Villa did believe that the complaints she raised about Bonilla were true.
Villa’s case nevertheless failed because Cava’s investigation “led it to conclude in good faith that Villa had simply made up her conversation with Bonilla.” Id. at 12. Adopting language from the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits, the Court explained:
When an employer is presented with a ‘he said, she said’ set of facts involving two employees, and the employer disbelieves the employee and disciplines her, the employer is not liable so long as it took the adverse action because of a good faith belief that the employee made false accusations.
Thus, while Cava would have been within its rights to believe Villa, the fact that it ultimately did not believe her based on the investigation did not expose it to liability.
The decision underscores a few important points to keep in mind:
- Encouraging internal complaints and taking them seriously by investigating them promptly is valuable both in ensuring a discrimination-free workplace and in mitigating risk of future liability.
- Obtaining and maintaining contact information for former employees at the time of their departure (such as during an exit interview) can often be highly valuable. Cava’s ability to speak with Bonilla and Arias during the investigation, even though neither worked there,at the time, enabled Cava to conduct a thorough investigation and obtain virtual information.
- Most of all, though many investigations include “he said, she said” conflicts as to allegations, that fact alone does not have to paralyze employers from deciding to believe one side over the other and acting accordingly.