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Court Finds That The Breadth Of An Investigation Supports A Manager’s Credibility Resolution

Investigation

Many disciplinary actions involve a determination by the company as to who is telling the truth. As illustrated by a recent court decision, a review of an employer’s credibility resolution may turn on how thorough the investigation of the differing versions of events actually was.

In Estate of Carlos Bassatt v. School District No. 1 it was alleged that the plaintiff, an Hispanic student teacher, had engaged in an inappropriate act in the school’s parking lot. One of the school’s teachers stated that she had observed the act, while the plaintiff denied it. His employment was terminated. He subsequently filed discrimination and retaliation charges and then a lawsuit in federal court. The school district (‘District”) moved to dismiss the case. The court reviewed the employer’s nondiscriminatory reason for the termination and examined the plaintiff’s allegations that the District’s credibility resolutions between the plaintiff and the teacher who allegedly observed the acts in question were faulty. The plaintiff focused his attack on the nature of the school district’s investigation. More specifically, he alleged that the District’s investigation was so suspect that the District could not reasonably have believed the teacher’s allegation.

The court noted at the outset that the failure to conduct a fair investigation can raise an inference of pretext. However, it noted that in the cases cited by the plaintiff, the employer had never heard the plaintiff’s side of the story before firing him or not. That that was not the case in this lawsuit. It then examined the next prong of plaintiff’s attack which was that the defendant failed to interview key witnesses. The court dismissed that allegation, finding that the District’s investigation, while conceivably it could have been more thorough, did involve interviews with the key witnesses and that nothing about that investigation suggested deficiencies from which one could infer that the District’s stated reasons were false or “pretext.” The plaintiff’s Complaint was dismissed.

The nature of the court’s inquiry into the credibility resolution provides a good takeaway. The District interviewed the plaintiff about the incident in question and allowed him to fully explain his side of the incident. It also interviewed other witnesses in the matter, including those who had viewed a videotape of the parking lot on the day in question and the teacher who had informed the District of what she observed in the parking lot. It then determined, in light of the breadth of the investigation, that the District’s credibility findings could not successfully be attacked or shown to be pretextual.

The process of conducting a thorough investigation is sometimes referred to as “industrial due process.” Employers faced with situations in which a credibility finding is a necessary part of a determination of whether discipline should be imposed would be well advised to give the accused employee an opportunity to explain his or her position, and should also expand the investigation to include other individuals who have been described as witnesses or who may have witnessed some or all of the conduct in question. The more “fair” the investigation, the more deference a court will give it.

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