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Court Upholds Employee Discharge for False Harassment Report

November 01, 2017, 02:11 PM

Generally, employers need to be very careful when disciplining employees who have reported illegal workplace harassment. This is because the federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination also prohibit retaliation against employees for reporting such conduct. But the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit the federal court that governs application of employment law in Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and West Virginia recently ruled in Patricia Villa v. CavaMezze Grill, LLC that if an employer determines in good faith that the report is false employees may be discharged for such reports. In the Villa case, the plaintiff, Patricia Villa, worked as a low level manager for the defendant restaurant reporting to the defendants General Manager. While she was employed as a manager, Ms. Villa called the companys Director of Operations to report that a former line level employee, who Ms. Villa had supervised, told her that the General Manager had offered her a raise in exchange for sex. The Director of Operations then interviewed witnesses, including the former employee who informed him that there was no such inappropriate offer and that she had not told Ms. Villa that it happened. After completing his investigation, the Director of Operations determined that Ms. Villas claim was false. Since the company concluded that Ms. Villa had made up the story, Ms. Villa was discharged for making a false harassment report. Ms. Villa then filed a charge of discrimination for illegal retaliation and ultimately sued her employer in federal court insisting that she had accurately reported the comments of the former employee who complained about the companys Director of Operations. She even produced evidence that she had honestly reported what she had been told and her employer was mistaken in determining she had lied. But, since it was undisputed that the employee had denied such a report when questioned by her employer, the Federal District Court found that Ms. Villa had not engaged in protected activity and that her discharge did not violate the federal law prohibiting discrimination/retaliation based on sex. Ms. Villa then appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In its decision affirming the District Courts decision, the appellate court recognized that the lower level employee in question may have given two different stories, but based upon what was reported to the employer, Ms. Villa made a false claim and accordingly did not engage in protected activity. The Court found that the employer acted in good faith after Ms. Villa reported an incident that was denied by the supposed victim and unsupported by other employees. The Court went on to say that if Ms. Villa was fired for misconduct she did not actually engage in, that is unfortunate, but a good-faith factual mistake is not the stuff of which Title VII violations are made.