Human Resources News & Insights

Was this guy fired for conduct, or in retaliation for filing complaint?

An employee who’s in hot water for violating company policy files a sexual harassment claim. After he’s fired, he sues for retaliation. Did he win?

Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.

The scene

“Did Tom Reinhart actually file a sexual harassment complaint against Steve Park?” asked VP Laura Higgins.

Laura had just stepped into HR manager Jim McMahon’s office.

“Yes, he did,” said Jim, motioning for Laura to sit down.

“Had Tom ever complained about harassment before?” asked Laura.

“No,” said Jim. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, word around the office is that Steve was about to discipline Tom for unexcused absences,” said Laura.

“So what are you saying?” asked Jim.

“The timing of his complaint is awfully fishy to me, that’s all,” she said.

“So you think Steve filed a complaint so he wouldn’t be disciplined for violating policy?” asked Jim.

“I’m not saying that’s exactly what happened, and of course we need to do a serious investigation,” said Laura. “But I’d keep that info in the back of your mind.”

Jim’s company investigated Tom’s complaint and determined that he made a false accusation to avoid discipline. Tom was fired.

Tom turned around and sued, claiming he was fired in retaliation for filing his harassment claim.

Did Jim’s company win?


The decision

Yes, the company won.

The court had to determine if the company fired Tom in retaliation for his harassment complaint, or if it actually fired him because he made a false accusation.

In the end, the court found that:

  •  • employers have the right to fire employees for making false sexual harassment charges
  •  • the company conducted a thorough and independent investigation, and
  •  • there was no showing of bias or retaliation.

Therefore, the firm was in the right for firing Steve for making a false complaint.

 Analysis: HR’s hands aren’t tied

You may think your hands are tired if a staffer you’re about to discipline files a complaint. This case shows otherwise.

The ruling states, “The anti-bias laws were not designed to arm employees with a tactical coercive weapon under which employees can make baseless claims simply to advance their own retaliatory motives and strategies.”

If the employee does something that would warrant discipline outside of an investigation, filing a complaint about something else won’t protect him or her.

Cite: Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles


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