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Skidmore College free to fire manager after bias complaint revealed performance problems, 2nd Cir. rules

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Dive Brief:

  • Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was in the clear to fire an IT manager who complained of discrimination, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held June 20 in Kinnin v. Skidmore College. The employer conducted an investigation and found her claim was unsubstantiated; it found instead that she’d been a poor manager with a history of exerting her “wrath” on certain employees for unknown reasons,
  • Shortly after an employee complained to HR that the IT manager was discriminating against him based on his race, she accused him and another manager of gender discrimination, according to court documents. Skidmore hired an outside investigator who interviewed 26 witnesses and reviewed more than 200 documents but found no evidence of gender- or race-based discrimination, court records said. The investigator did, however, find that the IT manager “painstakingly micromanaged,” intensely criticized and assigned menial tasks to certain employees until they quit or were terminated, according to the record. Skidmore’s vice president fired the IT manager.
  • She sued, alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A lower court ruled in the college’s favor, and the 2nd Circuit affirmed. The vice president had said he terminated the manager based on the investigator’s report, and there was no evidence the report was influenced by discrimination or that his decision was influenced by someone with a discriminatory motive, the 2nd Circuit explained. An independent investigation may insulate an employer from liability where, as here, it “results in an adverse action for reasons unrelated to any discriminatory behavior or motives,” the court said.

Dive Insight:

The Skidmore ruling may reassure HR pros they can get it right — that is, through an impartial, thorough and unbiased process, they can take needed action without running afoul of Title VII.

The ruling also highlights one key step: ensuring that investigations into alleged discrimination and any resulting employment decisions are not tainted by discriminatory input.

Plaintiffs, like the IT manager here, sometimes assert a “cat’s paw” theory of liability. According to the theory, even though the decisionmaker was neutral, their decision was significantly influenced by, or “rubber-stamped” allegations of, someone with a discriminatory motive, the lower court explained in the case.

If proven, the “cat’s paw” argument can show the employer’s stated reason for terminating a plaintiff was really a pretext — or cover-up — for unlawful discrimination.

The 2nd Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York and Vermont, agreed with the lower court this didn’t happen here: The IT manager failed to show the two people she accused of gender discrimination played a meaningful role in the decision to terminate her, the lower court explained. Each was just one of 26 people interviewed as part of the investigation, and they were not involved in any discussions the vice president had regarding its conclusions, the court said.

Employment decisions are also more likely to stand up in court when backed by strong documentation. For example, a university in Iowa successfully defended a former employee’s Family and Medical Leave Act claim by maintaining a “robust, well-documented record” of her performance issues, the 8th Circuit ruled in 2022. The employer also informed the employee in writing multiple times what she needed to do to improve and documented how she failed to meet these expectations, the court noted.

Employers can reduce their risk of liability by training managers on how to quickly identify and resolve problems, a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance suggests. This helps issues get resolved before they rise to the level of unlawful discrimination, the guidance says.

Training should be continuous for staff working remotely, experts previously told HR Dive. Ongoing training and open communication helps prevent misconduct by remote workers and can stop a problem faster, they explained. Although investigations can get tricky with remote workers, the framework is the same, an attorney said. This includes always starting with a clear understanding of the alleged misconduct.

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