Category Archives: Summary Judgment

The “Honest Belief” Rule

One of the things I like to do here is blow up some of the insidious “doctrines” that the defense bar has, with some success, foisted on the judiciary.  Judges like rules, because they make deciding cases easier, if only a little.  Every decision, especially a decision throwing a case out of court, has to answer the question “why?”  “Your case stinks” is not an acceptable answer.  It is much better, judicially speaking, to be able to have some rules that justify throwing the case out.

Today, I’m going to discuss a recent case from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Marshall v. Rawlings Co., which was decided on April 20, 2017 (we try to give you only the freshest decisions here!).  Generally, I write about cases that were wrongly decided.  Today is different.  Marshall was correctly decided.  

The 6th Circuit is a confused court.  It doesn’t know whether it wants to fulfill its purpose as protector of rights of individuals and implementer of remedial statutes, or whether it wants to be 4th Circuit lite.  (The Fourth Circuit Court is generally very pro-corporation.)  The reason for this is geographic.  The 6th Circuit includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.  Two industrialized states, which tend to produce a judiciary that recognizes that individuals and workers are people too, and two southern states which, ahem, are sometimes less enlightened.  Since the populations of Michigan and Ohio are so much greater than the others, judges from those states set the tone of the court.  But those states are changing, and so is the 6th Circuit.  

Rawlings Co. is an awful corporate “citizen.”  It sucks money from injured people and gives it to insurance companies.  Robin Hood in reverse.  Rawlings keeps 20 percent of the take in the process.  Here’s how it works.  You are injured in an accident, and your health insurance pays your bills (that’s what health insurance is for, after all.)  If somebody else is at fault for your injury, you probably will seek compensation.  In theory, the insurance company has also suffered damages because of the other person’s negligence.  You can’t sue for recovery of the medical bills (because you didn’t pay them).  The insurance company can, but it rarely does.  Instead, they found another way to get their money back: instead of suing the people at fault, they take it from the victim.  In the insurance policy (which you’ve never read; they are unreadable) is a provision that gives the insurance company the “right” of recovery.  It says basically: “if you’re injured and we pay your bills, and if you recover any money from the person who caused the injuries, you agree to reimburse us for your medical bills.”  

Rawlings is the bloodsucker that pesters your lawyer, pretending to assert “liens” and “subrogation rights,” etc.  Fortunately, New York passed a law which said that these clauses can’t be enforced.  

Marshall worked at Rawlings Co.  She was a worker’s compensation analyst, and she suffered from depression.  (Probably caused by working at such an awful place.)   She took an FMLA leave.  When she came back, she was demoted, although she was a top producer.  She complained that she was being harassed by her manager because of the leave she had taken.  Rawlings was brought in for a meeting with Mr. Rawlings himself.  Before the meeting, plaintiff’s manager told Rawlings that she was complaining of harassment to cover up her “poor performance.”  After the meeting, Rawlings fired her.

Marshall sued.  Rawlings said that it didn’t matter whether plaintiff’s supervisor resented Marshall’s FMLA leave, because he didn’t fire her, Rawlings did, and Rawlings didn’t know anything about her leave.  

Marshall’s case relied on what is called the “cat’s paw” theory of liability.  When a supervisor with discriminatory intent causes a higher up to terminate the employee, the company is liable, even though the manager that did the actual firing had no discriminatory intent.  If you’re like me, your reaction is “duh!”  

The reason I say that is simple.  Generally speaking, the only person in management who knows whether an employee is a good performer is the employer’s supervisor.  The supervisor makes or breaks the employee.  Everybody knows this.  Since the supervisor is the only one who really knows anything about the employee’s performance, the company necessarily relies on the supervisor to make performance based judgments about the employee.  It doesn’t matter what form this takes or what process the employer uses for the decision making.  

I am sure there are some who would take issue with my assertion about the supervisor having exclusive knowledge of the employee’s performance.  I acknowledge some work settings, such as restaurants and retail stores, where there are more than one supervisor or where the second level supervisor (generally, store manager) will have sufficient contact with rank and file employees to be familiar with their performance, but these are simply variations on a theme.  If the second level of supervision has day to day contact with the rank and file, the principle remains intact.  

The principle, which we might call an axiom, is this: In those workplaces where the corporation purports to make performance based decisions, the supervisor or supervisors with first hand knowledge of the employee’s performance are the de facto decision makers.  This is a matter of pure logic.  The decision cannot be performance based if the decision maker knows nothing about the employee’s performance, and if the decision maker does not have first hand knowledge, that knowledge has to be acquired from somebody who does.  

This is where an intellectually vapid doctrine called the “honest belief rule” rears its ugly head.  The rule, simply stated is this: it doesn’t matter that the information upon which the adverse decision is based is tainted with discriminatory intent if the decision maker “honestly believed” it to be true.  The “idea” behind this rule is that, in such a case, the employer lacked the necessary intent to be guilty of illegal discrimination.

O brother, where to start?  

This is how it’s supposed to work:  an employer is guilty of discrimination if it makes an adverse employment action because of a forbidden factor, let’s say skin color.  If a supervisor who wants to get rid of employee “x” because of his skin color tells the official decision maker that “we ought to get rid of “x” because his work is highly substandard and will cause the business to suffer, and the decision maker fires “x” based on that information, the only question for the jury should be whether “x” was fired because of his skin color. 

Isn’t it a little unfair?   The official decision maker did not have a discriminatory bone in his body and was, in effect, duped by the supervisor?  How is a company supposed to prevent something like that from happening?  The short answer is no, it’s not unfair at all.  A corporation can act only by its employees, the supervisor is an employee of the corporation, the corporation is responsible for the actions of its employees that violate the law, and the supervisor violated the law.  

Let me give you an example in a different context.  An airline instructs its pilots to fly with skill and safety.  The number one rule is “don’t crash the plane.”  This is undisputed.  Notwithstanding all the airline’s efforts to promote safe flying, a pilot gets a little careless and flies into the side of a mountain, killing everyone on board.  The company now says it would be unfair to hold it responsible, because it honestly thought that the pilot would not fly the plane into the side of the mountain.  The company would be laughed out of court.

The airline is responsible, because it entrusted the pilot with the plane.  In our case, the employer entrusted the supervisor with reporting on the performance of the workers he supervised.  The fact that the company honestly believed the supervisor is a red herring, it has nothing to do with anything.

It’s important to keep in mind what is really going on here.  Corporations don’t want to face a jury; they want judges to decide employment discrimination cases.  The only way to avoid a jury is to persuade the judge to grant summary judgment.  Summary judgment can only be granted if there are no disputed facts.  Obviously, whether somebody believes or does not believe something should be recognized as a question of fact.  By dressing up the issue as a “rule,” it is easier to persuade a judge that he or she is applying law, not deciding facts.  

Getting back to the Marshall case . . . .  This was a split decision, two judges ruled one way, the third judge disagreed and dissented from that ruling.  The majority correctly recognized that the belief of the decision maker was irrelevant.  The dissenter was Jeffrey Sutton, considered an intellectual star among conservative circuit court judges.  Sutton is without question highly intelligent, but look how he approaches this issue.  

First, he writes:  

The Court permits these claims to go to a jury on the ground that the “cat’s paw” theory overrides the honest-belief rule. I doubt we can sidestep the honest-belief rule so easily. But even if we could, the “cat’s paw” theory fails on its own terms here. Under the theory, a lower-level supervisor, motivated by actionable animus, commits actions or makes recommendations to convince the decisionmaker, oblivious to the discriminatory animus, to take an adverse employment action against the employee.

Here, Judge Sutton signals that he would be receptive to the argument that the “honest belief” rule can be used as a defense to the cat’s paw theory of liability.  This is a radical notion, as the whole point of the cat’s paw theory is that the supervisor’s belief is irrelevant.  In effect, Judge Sutton is suggesting a way to eliminate the cat’s paw theory (even though it has been approved by the Supreme Court.)

He goes on to make the following argument:

Bradshaw’s criticism of Marshall at the demotion meeting, as Marshall testified at her deposition, was that Marshall “do[es]n’t know what [she’s] doing, [she’s] completely inefficient. [She] come[s] in here long hours and [she] still can’t get [her] job done.”  That reflects an honest belief that Marshall worked too much to do too little, not that she was skipping too much work for her FMLA leave.

(In case you’re wondering about all the little brackets, it’s because Sutton changed Marshall’s testimony from the second person to the third person.  There’s nothing really wrong with that, it just makes it a little harder to read.)  

Marshall testified that when Bradshaw demoted her, he said “You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re completely inefficient.  You come in here long hours and you still can’t get your job done.”  According to Judge Sutton, this is evidence that Bradshaw honestly believed in the reason he gave for demoting Marshall.  Remember, summary judgment has to be based on undisputed facts, and so when a judge recites evidence in a summary judgment motion, it means that the evidence is (supposedly) undisputed.  Judge Sutton was willing to accept Bradshaw’s explanation for demoting Marshall as undisputed.  This is complete nonsense.  Marshall’s whole case is about disputing the reasons given for her demotion.  

Again, Judge Sutton is signaling his willingness to depart radically from settled law in order to rule against an employee and in favor of a corporate employer.  He would accept an employer’s explanation for an adverse employment action as “undisputed evidence” of the employer’s “honest belief” for that action.  This would turn the law on its head.  Every employer puts forth a superficially acceptable reason for its adverse employment action.  This explanation is not evidence, it is a contention.  Yes, Marshall’s account of what Bradshaw said to her is evidence, but it is evidence only of the fact that Bradshaw said it.  Rawlings could not rely on Bradshaw’s  statement for the truth of the statement, because that would be inadmissible hearsay.

The argument would be that defendant is not using Bradshaw’s statement to prove that plaintiff was a poor worker, but that Bradshaw believed that she was.  The underlying premise is that he wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t believe it.  This would be fine, except that people, including supervisors, say things all the time that they don’t believe.  One of the cardinal rules of summary judgment is that all evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, but here Judge Sutton (who certainly knows better) does just the opposite.  

There is something even more fundamentally wrong with Judge Sutton’s opinion here.  Judge Sutton’s whole point assumes that Bradshaw’s “honest’ belief about Marshall’s performance is one thing, while her actual performance is something else.  In an employment discrimination case such as this, the employee generally must prove that the reason given for the adverse employment action was false.  The only way for Marshall to prove that the reason given (poor performance) was false would be to prove that her performance was satisfactory.  Her supervisor’s “honest belief” should play no role here.  Bradshaw, as Marshall’s supervisor, was presumably familiar with her performance.  That’s his job.  There is no reason to manufacture an escape hatch for the supervisor.  If a supervisor wrongly accuses an employee of poor performance, it is fair for a jury to infer that the supervisor was doing so intentionally.  

Corporations constantly attempt to avoid responsibility for the acts of their employees by arguing that employers are allowed to make bad decisions and have poor business judgment.  We hear all the time the old canard: “You can’t prove discrimination by showing that the employer’s decision was a bad one.”  The “honest belief” rule is a variation on this theme, because it is really based on the premise that somebody didn’t know what he or she was doing.  In other words, it may look like employment discrimination to you, but it is really just mistakes, incompetence and bad judgment.  This stands reason on its head.  The law should presume that employers make rational, competent and informed decisions.  If an employer wants to make the contrary argument as a defense, fine, but let it make it to a jury, and it should have the burden of proof.  

The “honest belief” rule is an example of the defense bar foisting an intellectually dishonest “doctrine” upon the courts in order to make it accepted jurisprudence.  It is the role of competent employment discrimination lawyers to make sure this does not happen.

Robbed Of His Day In Court

The Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury.  Except when it doesn’t.  Every court system has a process by which judges decide whether a case goes to trial or not.  This commonly befuddles clients, who ask, not unreasonably, why wouldn’t my case “go to court?”  Here’s the reason:  the purpose of a jury is to decide facts.  In most cases, this is synonymous with deciding who wins or loses, but not always.  If there are no facts to decide, there is nothing for a jury to do, and there is no need for a trial.  This process for determining what cases go to trial is generally called “summary judgment” or “summary disposition.”

Who decides whether there are facts to decide?  

The judge.  

In deciding whether there are any facts for a jury to decide, a judge is bound by a simple rule: the role of the judge is solely to identify factual issues; the judge cannot decide who’s telling the truth or which version of the facts is correct or more likely.  The judge’s ability to “weed out” facts is governed by these rules: one, disputes over immaterial facts are ignored; and two, contentions that “no rational jury” could believe are ignored.  For example, in a race discrimination case, an allegation that the supervisor used his work computer to view inappropriate videos is unlikely to be of any significance, even though it may demonstrate a lack of character or judgment.  By the same token, nobody has the right to ask a jury to believe something that is patently unbelievable.  Apart from these exceptions, the judge is not supposed to pass judgment (pun intended) over any issues in the case. (There is a third exception that I’ll save for another time, it’s not important to this discussion.)

While these rules would make it seem like most cases should go to trial, it does not quite work that way.  In too many cases, what “no reasonable jury could believe” turns out to be what the judge does not in fact believe.  Some judges run roughshod over facts that are of some importance, albeit not momentous.  There are some troublesome “doctrines” that are (in my view) impermissible shortcuts for deciding cases.

What happens if a case is thrown out on summary judgment?  There is a right to an appeal.  On appeal, the appeals court is supposed to decide the motion “de novo,” which means that the decision of the first judge is ignored, and the motion is decided all over again.  In practice, the appeals courts give a lot of deference to the decision of the lower court judge.

This process has a lot of potential for injustice, particularly in the Federal Courts.  This comes as a surprise to many people (and not a few lawyers), because historically it has been the Federal Courts that have spearheaded advances in civil rights and the battle to end discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations.  That is part of the problem.  Some Federal judges believe that the Federal system is for big cases involving important principles, and that the garden variety wrongful discharge case should not be clogging up the Federal system.  (In the unlikely event you are a Federal judge who happens to be reading this post, I don’t mean you!)   

There is some irony here.  Federal judges have the greatest job security in the world, quite literally.  The Constitution provides that they are employed for life, they can’t be fired and their salaries cannot be reduced.  Yet, so many show so little concern for the average Joe or Jill that is summarily tossed off the job.

Chester v. DirecTV, L.L.C., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 5530 (5th Cir. 2017), a recent summary decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates virtually all of the problems identified above.  This was an age discrimination case.  The plaintiff, Chester, supervised a team of installers for DirecTV.  There were four supervisors in his unit, and at 59 years old, he was the oldest.  Two of the other three were in their 30s, and the fourth was 43.  Chester was fired, supposedly because his team was performing poorly as measured by certain statistics used by the company.  But the other teams all had poor performance as well, and one of the supervisors had numbers that were identical to Chester’s.  So why was Chester fired and not the others?

To me (and probably to you), this is a classic age discrimination case.  Chester says that age was the reason, a conclusion that is supported by the facts.  The company says that it was Chester’s performance and no other reason.  Its argument is that while other supervisors had poor numbers, Chester’s situation was different, and those differences are why he was fired and not anybody else.  At this point, the reader might say:

Ah ha, I see where this is going!  A question of fact, something for a jury to decide.  Was Chester fired for age or for performance?

Unfortunately, that is not where this is going.  The judge in Chester’s case wrote what I call a “nothing to see here, move along” decision and threw the case out.  The judge’s decision was rubber stamped by the Court of Appeals.

Why was the case dismissed?  My analysis is that the lower court weighed the evidence, drew inferences in favor of the defendant, made credibility determinations and misapplied one of those dubious doctrines I referred to above.  Weighing evidence means, in the context of conflicting evidence, deciding that one piece of evidence is more important than another.  Credibility refers to whether a particular piece of evidence, usually testimony, should be believed.  The dubious doctrine is a nefarious idea known as the “same actor inference.”  All the above was mixed up with some faulty reasoning, and produced a horrible result.  

Let me start with the same actor inference.  In simple terms, if the person who fired you is the same person who hired you, it makes no sense to accuse that person of discrimination, since, if he or she wanted to discriminate against [fill in the blank], he or she would not have hired you in the first place.  This is perfectly logical, where it makes sense.  A complete discussion of the doctrine and its limitations in the context of summary judgment would be outside the scope of this post.  It is sufficient to say that it simply did not make sense here.  Chester was hired in 2003 by a company called Bruister, which was a contractor for DirecTV.  DirecTV bought Bruister in 2008 and “hired” all of Bruister’s employees, including Chester.  So, while DirecTV hired Chester in some technical sense, it is not as if DirecTV made some individualized decision to hire Chester such that it would be fair to say that it would be irrational to accuse DirecTV of discriminating against Chester.  There are other reasons the same actor rule makes no sense here, but there is no need to go into all of them.

When we talk about “drawing inferences,” we simply mean interpreting evidence, deciding the meaning of facts.  Virtually all discrimination cases are proved by circumstantial evidence, so the entire case relies on convincing the jury that certain inferences should be drawn.  There is nothing complicated about this, we do this hundreds of times in our daily lives.  It is so natural, that we are hardly aware of it.  In deciding whether there are facts for a jury to decide, the judge is supposed to draw all possible inferences in favor of the plaintiff.  That is not what happened here, not by a long shot.

The essence of discrimination is treating one person differently than another or others.  Chester was treated differently than the younger supervisors, so it was critical for DirecTV to justify that different treatment.  Generally speaking, it is the jury’s role to decide whether the explanations make sense and represent the real reason the employee was terminated.

About the only thing that DirecTV could come up with to distinguish Chester from the other supervisors was the assertion that, in a meeting, Chester was unable to identify the strong and weak performers on his team.  Chester disputed this.  According to Chester, he based his answers on the same metrics that the company used to evaluate the performance of his team.  The court gave no weight to Chester’s assertion, because he was not specific enough about what statistics he relied.  The appeals court added that Chester did not “provide the district court

with the accurate information he claims to have provided during the meeting or that he would present at trial if given the opportunity.”  What neither the District Court or the Court of Appeals  decision acknowledges, however, is that DirecTV’s evidence was even more vague than Chester’s.  The meeting in question was not documented, and all DirecTV said was that when Chester was asked to identify the strong performers, he named the weak, and vice versa.  Chester’s response, that his identifications were based on defendant’s metrics, was appropriate and sufficiently specific.  Furthermore, DirecTV relied on the affidavit of a person who was not even present at the meeting in question, and he did not identify the source of his information.  It should have been ignored entirely.  

The Court also criticized Chester for not attempting to “correct the miscommunication or

clarify his responses even after he was informed he answered incorrectly and his termination was at least in part based on his responses.”  I really don’t see any significance to this, but if there was any significance, it is a matter of interpretation, i.e., for the jury.  Chester stated that the meeting in question was held on September 5, and he was terminated on September 6.  An employee is under no obligation to try to convince the employer to change its mind, and most do not.  Chester filed his charge of discrimination with the EEOC right away, and DirecTV had the opportunity to change its mind and offer him his job back.  These types of details, although completely insignificant in my opinion, are for the jury to assess.  

I could go on, but the point has been made.  A jury, not a judge, should have decided Chester’s case.  

I don’t know anything about Chester.  He could have been the employee from hell for all I know.  But he deserved a better shake than this.  The loss of employment at 59 years old is usually devastating.  It is hard to find employment at that age, especially for somebody carrying the stigma of having been fired from his or her last job.  With retirement only a few years off, it’s critical to earn and save as much as possible in the last few years of one’s work expectancy.  Too many individuals who have worked hard all their lives find themselves without sufficient savings for retirement, and are forced to take low paying, menial jobs in their late 60s or 70s just to pay the bills.  

Where was the justice in denying Mr. Chester his day in court?  Was it a close call?  Then we should err in favor of the individual, very plausibly the victim of age discrimination, and not in favor of DirecTV, a subsidiary of AT&T, a multinational corporation with over $400 billion in assets.