Lack of Conclusive Evidence Does Not Undermine Lawfulness of Termination

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Minnesota) recently affirmed that employers charged with discrimination do not need to prove that they were right in order to prevail; they merely need to show that they acted in good faith.

A co-worker accused Albert Rinchuso, a pharmacist for the Brookshire Grocery Company, of looking at pornography on his work computer. During the company’s investigation, four female co-workers claimed that Rinchuso looked at pictures of naked women, gambled on his work computer and touched them offensively.

Employee Admits a Little Misconduct

Rinchuso admitted that he sometimes visited internet dating sites and sports pages at work but denied the allegations regarding pornography, gambling and touching co-workers.  Brookshire’s IT department could never confirm whether Rinchuso did in fact access pornography on his work computer.

Brookshire fired Rinchuso at the conclusion of their investigation, prompting him to sue claiming that his termination was motivated by his gender because:

→ The company relied on the interviews of female witnesses and declined to interview two male co-workers during the investigation;

→ The company’s had no video evidence of him touching his female co-workers or misusing his work computer; and

→ The company could not verify that he had viewed pornography at work.

It’s Not What You Do But Why You Did It

After the trial court dismissed the claim on summary judgement, Rinchuso appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, who affirmed the dismissal. The Court explained first that even if the three points noted above were true, they did not provide a “specific link” between the termination and gender-based motivation.  After all, Rinchuso admitted using the computers for personal reasons, which was in direct conflict with the company’s internet policies. Moreover, it seemed perfectly appropriate to the Court that an employer would elect not to interview men in a matter that involved only allegations of inappropriate touching of women.

As for the lack of conclusive evidence of touching or accessing pornography, the Court explained that the question is not whether Rinchuso actually engaged in the prohibited conduct but whether the company had a good faith belief that he did.  They found that Rinchuso’s admission that he violated certain policies, together with the consistent testimony of multiple co-workers, was sufficient to establish good faith and dispel the notion of an improper motivation. As such, Rinchuso could not have been victimized by unlawful discrimination.

Bottom Line

The ultimate issue in any discrimination case is not what the employer did but rather, what their motivation was for doing it.  Under both federal and state law, employment action is not wrongful unless it was motivated by the employee’s race, gender, age or other protected classification.  Often, that motivation can be inferred from the employer’s deviation from policy, proof that non-protected class employees were treated more favorably or even the mere absence of a cogent explanation for the action.

However, as this case showed, when the employer can demonstrate that they acted in good faith, there is no legitimate basis for suspecting a discriminatory motive.  Without the wrongful motive, the employer’s actions cannot be deemed unlawful even if their evidence was a bit insubstantial or their conclusions about the employee’s behavior proved to be erroneous.