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Mistaken Report of Harassment Justified Termination

Patricia Villa was a low level manager at Cava Mezze Grill. An employee came to her with a complaint of sexual harassment. Ms. Villa took the complaint up the management hierarchy to the Director of Operations and also mentioned her belief that the same harassment had occurred to another employee.

The Director of Operations interviewed the two employees who Ms. Villa said were harassed. Both employees denied the harassment and that they had complained to Ms. Villa. As a consequence, Ms. Villa was fired for making up the harassment complaints. Ms. Villa sued, alleging that her firing was retaliation for making a complaint of harassment in violation of Title VII. During the discovery phase, it was confirmed that Ms. Villa had not fabricated the complaints of harassment.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of Cava. Ms. Villa had to show that Cava had a retaliatory motive i.e., that Cava fired her because she engaged in protected activity. Cava established that it had fired her because it believed she had fabricated the complaint of harassment.

“Because the statute’s focus is the employer’s subjective motivation for the action, the facts the decision-maker actually perceived matter. If an employer, due to a genuine factual error, never realized that its employee engaged in protected conduct, it stands to reason that the employer did not act out of a desire to retaliate for conduct of which the employer was not aware.”

The circuit court further reiterated established precedent that it would not question the reasonableness of Cava’s investigation and second-guess its business judgment. It was clear that Cava had fired her because of its belief in the falsity of her report.