Good faith wins court cases! Don’t use investigation to trap employee

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

Employers get lots of leeway when it comes to terminating employees. For example, courts generally uphold firing someone for breaking a rule as long as the employer reasonably believed the employee broke the rule—even if it turns out he did not.

But when it looks as if the employer tried to trick the employee into breaking a rule, judges won’t look the other way. Entrapment draws their ire, whether committed by police or employers.

Recent case: Lionel Pye worked for NuAire and complained that an HR representative called a form he needed filled out “dumb.” He also claimed she used a racial slur.

During a company investigation, Pye claims that another HR rep asked him what it would take to “make the case go away” and then offered suggestions like a promotion, a company car and other goodies. Pye then allegedly commented that a company car would be nice. Pye was fired for “extortion.”

He sued, alleging a hostile work environment, racial discrimination and retaliation.

The trial court dismissed his claims, but now the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed part of the decision and ordered a jury trial. The appeals court said a jury should decide who is telling the truth.

Is it Pye, who claims he was set up for the allegation he tried to extort a settlement, or was it the employer, claiming it genuinely believed that Pye was trying to strong-arm the company with false discrimination complaints? (Pye v. NuAire, No. 10-2243, 8th Cir., 2011)

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