The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently decided that an employee was not retaliated against when her employer fired her for a harassment report it investigated and deemed false, even though the employee later offered proof that she truthfully reported what she was told.
Patricia Villa began working at CavaMezze Grill (Cava) at the Mosaic District shopping center in the Merrifield area of Fairfax, Virginia in the spring of 2012. In October 2013, she was a low-level manager for Cava and reported directly to the restaurant’s General Manager, Marcelo Butron. Rob Gresham was Cava’s Director of Operations and oversaw the operations of each restaurant, including the Merrifield restaurant.
On October 28, 2013, Villa called Gresham and reported that Judy Bonilla, a former line-level employee whom she had sometimes supervised, had told Villa that Butron had offered to give Bonilla a raise in exchange for sex. Villa told Gresham that Osmar Marinero, another Cava employee, witnessed this incident. During her conversation with Gresham, Villa told Gresham that she also suspected that Jessica Arias, another former Cava employee, had left Cava because Butron made Arias a similar offer.
Gresham promptly investigated the incident. When Gresham asked Bonilla about the alleged proposition, however, Bonilla denied that it happened. Gresham also asked Butron about the incident, and he also denied it. Marinero denied that he witnessed any such incident, and Arias stated that she resigned because of her “crazy” family, and not because of harassment.
Based on his investigation, Gresham concluded that Villa had made up the allegations. Gresham met with Villa and Butron on November 5, 2013, and explained to Villa that he had spoken with Bonilla and Arias and they both had denied that Butron had offered them a raise in exchange for sex. As a result, he determined that Villa made a false report regarding Butron. Gresham fired Villa. Villa said she was sorry and did not deny that she fabricated the report.
Villa subsequently filed a retaliation complaint with the Fairfax County Office of Human Rights, which was cross-filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The Office of Human Rights did not reach the merits of the issue, and Villa received a right-to-sue letter. She then filed suit in federal district court, alleging Title VII retaliation.
In her deposition, Bonilla changed her story and acknowledged that Villa had in fact accurately reported their conversation, and claimed that she had lied to Gresham when she told him otherwise. Bonilla also testified that although she had told Villa that Butron offered to give her a raise for sex, Butron, unbeknownst to Villa, never actually made such an offer.
Villa asserted that she was fired for truthfully reporting alleged misconduct to management. Under these circumstances, however, the court found that Villa could not establish retaliation.
Villa appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which reasoned that an employer must act out of “the desire to retaliate” to incur liability. Thus, an employee can be fired for knowingly fabricating an allegation relating to a Title VII violation. Because Cava’s investigation led it to conclude in good faith that Villa had fabricated her conversation with Bonilla, Cava’s reason for terminating Villa was not retaliatory, and could not result in liability.
The Fourth Circuit did not accept the EEOC’s position in its recent guidance on retaliation law that reporting harassment to a manager is equivalent to participating in an EEOC proceeding. This rejection of the EEOC position suggests judicial skepticism concerning the EEOC’s broad interpretation of the scope of employee protections after complaining of alleged discrimination.