Not every sexual harassment complaint is legitimate. A thorough investigation may wind up showing that one of the parties is lying. Can you fire the presumed liar if he or she brought the complaint in the first place?
The answer is a qualified “yes”—if you have independent evidence that you made the termination decision in good faith.
Recent case: Municipal employee Derald Richey complained to HR that a female co-worker had asked him whether he had a girlfriend and then put her head on his lap. He said he told her to stop, but she continued to engage in sex talk and even showed up at his house unannounced.
Meanwhile, the woman complained about Richey’s temper.
HR investigated, and the co-worker denied any harassment. She also gave HR a copy of a handwritten map she said Richey had given her when he asked for a ride to church.
The employer concluded Richey had lied about the alleged sexual harassment. Then it fired him for violating its honesty rules. The city said this was the last straw: Richey had almost been fired earlier for violent and threatening verbal outbursts.
Richey sued, alleging retaliation.
But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said there was no proof his employer hadn’t honestly believed it had fired Richey for violating its honesty policy. The court said this case was different from others in which employers examine he said/she said allegations and simply don’t believe the complaining employee. This time, the employer had independent evidence—in this case, the hand-drawn map indicating that Richey had asked the female co-worker to pick him up. (Richey v. City of Independence, No. 07-2109, 8th Cir., 2008)
Final note: Always run firing decisions by your attorney before pulling the trigger.
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