Tenth Circuit reaffirms Honest Belief doctrine

EEO (equal employment opportunity) laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, etc., but they do not generally require special treatment. Employers are entitled to make business judgments, and sometimes those judgments involve subjective decisions about whether an employee is adequately performing or likely to adequate perform. Employees in a protected class fail to prove a case of discrimination if all they do is challenge the employer’s business judgment. When an employer has provided a legitimate business reason for its decision to take an adverse employment action (termination, demotion, etc.) against an employee, the question is not whether that reason was right or even persuasive, rather, the employee must prove that decision occurred “because of” their race, etc.

In this case, the employer made two adverse decisions about the plaintiff, a female university psychologist and training director: It demoted her, and it decided not to reinstate her. She challenged the veracity and adequacy of the employer’s reasons. Her employer countered that it “honestly and in good faith believed” its reasons, which included its belief that there was “upheaval among her students” and “upheaval among her supervisees.”

The Tenth Circuit rejected her claims, holding her proof inadequate. According to the Tenth Circuit, she failed to show the employer’s reasons “were dishonest or made in bad faith” or “so incoherent, weak, inconsistent, or contradictory that a rational factfinder could conclude they are unworthy of belief.” In other words, whether the employer’s reasons were right wasn’t the issue, only whether it honestly believed them. In rejecting her claims, the Court also noted that the timing of her first protected activity — a complaint letter submitted by her lawyer — was after the employer’s initial decision. The Court noted that an employer cannot retaliate against something that hasn’t yet happened.

(The employer) could not retaliate for (plaintiff’s) protected activity until she had engaged in such activity.

The decision is a strong reinforcement of the Honest Belief doctrine.

Source: Hiatt v. Colo. Seminary, — F.3d —., No. 16-1159, 2017 BL 185948, 130 FEP Cases 253 (10th Cir. June 02, 2017)

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