Keeping Head in Sand Risky to Employers in Discrimination Cases

Keeping Head in Sand Risky to Employers in Discrimination Cases

I've written before about the honest-belief rule-if an employer honestly believed in the proffered reason for its action, an employee cannot establish pretext, even if the employer's reason is ultimately found to be mistaken, foolish, trivial, or baseless. Jones v. Nissan N. Am. (6th Cir. 8/19/11) [pdf] [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers]  illustrates that an employer's honest belief, though, cannot coexist with a disregard of the cold, hard facts.

In Jones, the employer argued that it could not be liable for an ADA violation by refusing to return an injured employee to work because it held an honest belief that an order of the workers' compensation court prohibited the employee's return. The Court disagreed:

Nissan's defense ... was based on the premise that Nissan imposed unsubstantiated medical restrictions on Jones because it believed the chancellor's decision and order required it to do so.... In the instant case, however, notwithstanding Nissan's arguments to the contrary, it is clear beyond peradventure that the chancellor's order did not direct Nissan to restrict Jones from continuing in the trim-fit position he was performing at the time of the workers' compensation trial. The order only directs Nissan to pay certain benefits.... Most glaringly, Nissan concluded that Jones was restricted from using "hand tools," despite the fact that the chancellor did not make a single finding with regard to Jones's ability to use hand tools in his job.

Courts give wide latitude to employers who make informed decisions based on all available facts and circumstances. As this case illustrates, employers who ignore the facts, or fail to make a thorough investigation to uncover all reasonably available facts, don't fair so well. Strive to be the former; do not succumb to the ease of the latter.

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