Investigating Employee Misconduct and Discrimination Law in Georgia

For Georgia employers engaging in the process of investigating an employee for possible misconduct, a recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision offers useful knowledge about what is (and is not) required in order to avoid running afoul of Title VII and finding oneself liable for illegal discrimination. In that recent case, the court ruled against an employee who alleged sex discrimination, deciding that, even if the employer’s investigation into that employee was flawed, the employee lacked proof, as required by the law, that the employer’s actions were motivated by an intent to discriminate.

The employee in the case, Kendra Chukes, started work in 2012 as an assistant manager at a Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits restaurant in Florida. Before Chukes started working at that location, the restaurant had experienced virtually no problems with cash shortages in its safe. However, less than two months into Chukes’ employment, the safe came up short on cash three times while she was on duty. Despite Chukes’ denial of involvement, a supervisor ordered her suspended without pay pending the conclusion of an investigation into the repeated instances of missing money. Ultimately, after interviewing several employees about the missing money, the supervisor decided to terminate Chukes.

Chukes sued, alleging sex discrimination. The employer argued that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Chukes:  namely, the mishandling of the money. Chukes contended that this stated reason was a mere pretext, and, to back up her assertion, she pointed out that, on at least one of the occasions, the shortage occurred after the shift of another manager and that the managers’ supervisor ordered that other manager to pay back the missing amount. She also argued that the employer’s investigation was not proper because the employer relied primarily on the statements made by other employees and that this was a fatally flawed methodology because the other employees had a reason to lie.

The trial court awarded summary judgment to the employer, and Chukes appealed. The 11th Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision in favor of the employer. One of the key components of the appeals court’s ruling related to the sufficiency of the employer’s investigation. In ruling against Chukes, the appeals court explained that the simple fact that an employer relied upon a flawed investigation as the basis for terminating an employee does not automatically make the stated, non-discriminatory basis for that termination a mere pretext. In order to establish that an employer has committed discrimination in violation of Title VII, the employee must do more than prove that the investigation that led to her termination was imperfect. To succeed, the employee instead must prove that the employer took its actions based upon an underlying motivation to discriminate against that employee.

In this case, the fact that the supervisors at Popeye’s conducted an investigation that left itself open to manipulation by less-than-truthful employees did not make the employer liable under Title VII. Chukes needed proof that the investigation and the rest of the acts leading to her termination were guided by the employer’s intent to discriminate against her on the basis of sex. Since she lacked that proof, her case failed.

Whether you are an employee or an employer in Georgia, it is important to understand what the law’s prohibitions against discrimination do (and do not) require of employers when it comes to investigating employee misconduct, and potentially terminating that person. For advice and counsel on these and other employment law questions, reach out to the diligent Georgia sex discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have extensive experience and can help you address your questions about Title VII issues.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Dual Theories of Employee’s Misconduct Doesn’t Prove Employer Discriminated, 11th Circuit Rules, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, April 6, 2016

11th Circuit: Attacking Employer’s Business Judgment Not Enough to Show Pretext in Discrimination Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 25, 2015

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