By: Cary Schwimmer
In Carrethers v McCarthy, Case No. 19-5712 (May 28, 2020), the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals confirmed that an employer may legitimately fire an employee if it believes that the employee falsified allegations of misconduct directed against him or her.
Carrethers, a civilian employee who worked for the Army, repeatedly accused her supervisors and other coworkers of various sorts of harassment. Her allegations were never substantiated, prompting a warning and subsequent reprimand. Carrethers then filed another set of allegations against her immediate supervisor. The Army appointed an officer to investigate. The officer interviewed Carrethers and 14 other employees who Carrethers said could verify her claims, but the employees actually contradicted her claims. The officer concluded that Carrethers was abusing the system to distract from her poor performance. The Army then fired her.
Carrethers sued under Title VII, claiming that her termination was unlawful retaliation for her complaints. The federal district court granted summary judgment to the Army and the 6th Circuit affirmed the decision. The court of appeals determined that her allegations against supervisors and employees were bogus and relied on the absence of any real dispute that the Army fired Carrethers. The only question was whether an employer may legitimately fire an employee if it honestly believes that the employee falsified misconduct allegations. The 6th Circuit’s answer was yes, citing several previous decisions on the subject, explaining:
After all, groundless complaints defame innocent coworkers, undermine trust in the workplace and waste resources. It only gets worse when (as here) the employee seems to have made a habit of making things up. So of course, employers are allowed to fire such employees.
Practice Tip: The fact that discrimination laws prohibit retaliation against employees for unlawful discrimination or harassment complaints does not insulate them from discipline or termination if the employer honestly determines that such claims were falsely made. Employers must thoroughly investigate all such allegations and document the investigation and conclusion. If an employee’s claims are false, the employer should remember that the law’s anti-retaliation provisions are not an impediment to taking disciplinary action.