Wednesday, November 16, 2016

DeJesus v. Washington Post: Does EEO law require an employer to have a reasonable basis for firing someone?

If an employer's asserted reason for taking a particular action is unreasonable, does it follow that the employer has lied about why it took the action? That is one of the issues confronted by the court in DeJesus v. Washington, No. 15-7126 (D.C. Cir. Nov. 15, 2016), in which David DeJesus, who had sold ad space for the Washington Post for 18 years, alleged that he was fired because of his race and age.

The defendant asserted that DeJesus was fired for "willful neglect of duty and insubordination" -- he allegedly ordered a research and analysis of media study without prior authorization and intentionally failed to give the study to a particular person.

The court described the crux of the case as whether DeJesus's supervisor, the person who decided to fire DeJesus, honestly and reasonably believed that he had been insubordinate. The court rejected the defendant's contention that DeJesus could not prevail if his supervisor had had an honest belief that he had been insubordinate, regardless of whether the belief was reasonable.

The court confusingly suggests that an honestly held reason for taking an action is not sufficient unless it is also reasonable, but it is clear upon a close reading of the court's decision, that there is no independent requirement of reasonableness. The court explains:

[A] jury could properly conclude that the Washington Post's proffered reason is so unreasonable that it provokes suspicion of pretext. . . .

To be clear, courts should not evaluate the reasonableness of the employer's business decisions, such as whether it made financial sense to terminate an employee who generated substantial revenue . . . . Rather, the factfinder is tasked with evaluating the reasonableness of the decisionmaker's belief because honesty and reasonableness are linked: a belief may be so unreasonable that a factfinder could suspect it was not honestly held.
Thus, reasonableness is merely a gauge for assessing whether the employer's asserted reason was honestly held -- the more unreasonable the asserted reason, the more likely that it was not the actual reason. An employer has not engaged in intentional discrimination merely because it has acted unreasonably, but a jury may be permitted to hold that against the employer and conclude that the employer did not actually act for the reason it asserted.

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.