Sixth Circuit Follows “Honest Belief” Rule to Reject Wal-Mart Associate’s Age Discrimination Case

A Wal-Mart employee lost her attempt to bring an age discrimination case against her former employer after the company terminated her at age 62. The employee’s unsuccessful case is a reminder to employers and employees of the wide breadth of the “honest belief” rule, which says that, if an employer reasonably relied upon facts it had before it when it made its decision, it cannot be deemed to be using non-discriminatory reasons as mere pretexts for discrimination. The application of this rule to this employee’s case proved to be one integral piece in the failure of her age discrimination case at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The employee, Reva Richardson, had worked for Wal-Mart since 2000. Over her time at Wal-Mart, she held several jobs, the last of which was an hourly associate position. From January 2011 to August 2012, Richardson received three “coachings,” or reprimands for breaking company policies. Under Wal-Mart’s progressive system of discipline, a fourth violation would result in Richardson’s termination. In March 2013, Richardson was involved in a workplace accident where she tripped and fell, breaking her wrist. To make matters worse, Wal-Mart reviewed the video evidence of the accident and concluded that Richardson created a safety hazard, due to her improper placement of a cart. This safety violation triggered another reprimand and resulted in Richardson’s termination.

Richardson, however, saw a different motivation at work in her case. Richrdson, who was 62 when she was terminated, claimed that Wal-Mart discriminated against her due to her age. Richardson claimed that she had direct and circumstantial evidence of age discrimination. The company disagreed, asking the trial court to issue a summary judgment in its favor. The trial court agreed, concluding that there was no valid factual dispute upon which a trial could be held.

The employee appealed, but she lost again. In her appeal, Richardson claimed that her evidence was sufficient to present a triable case of age discrimination. For direct evidence, she pointed to negative comments made by a manager, who called her “too old” and asked her when she was going to leave the company, as well as hostile behaviors by another manager, who stared at her, did not say “hello” to her, and embarrassed her in front of colleagues.

None of this was sufficient as direct evidence. The evidence against the second manager was inadequate because, in order to make an age discrimination case based on direct evidence, the proof you present must have a direct connection to your age. Without additional evidence to provide an age-related context for the manager’s hostility, the only inference a court could draw was that the manager disliked Richardson, not that he held antipathy toward her because of her age. As for the first manager, the comments might have been effective if Richardson could have proven that this manager played a role in her firing. In this case, the manager had moved to another Wal-Mart store four months before the company terminated Richardson, and she had no proof that he played any role in the ultimate termination decision.

As for Richardson’s circumstantial evidence case, it was tripped up by the “honest belief” rule. In this case, Wal-Mart argued that the manager who fired the woman did so because of the 2013 safety incident and the employee’s three previous coachings. Richardson had nothing to prove that “the supervisor responsible for firing her did not honestly believe that Richardson’s coaching history justified the termination decision.” This meant that Wal-Mart passed the honest belief test that Richardson could not show pretext and could not establish a circumstantial case of discrimination. If you are an employee pursuing a discrimination case, it is very important to be aware of this rule and be prepared to contradict it if the circumstances of your firing resemble those of Richardson’s case.

There are many hurdles that an employee must pass to put together a successful age discrimination case. Whether you are an employer or an employee, it is important to understand everything that is involved in advancing or defending against discrimination actions. The experienced Tennessee age discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have the knowledge and skills to give you the representation you need on your side in your case.

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

More blog posts:

Georgia Man’s Appeal in Disparate-Impact Age Discrimination Case to Go Before 11th Circuit… Again, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, April 27, 2016

Alleged Recruiting Violations Doom Georgia High School Football Coach’s Racial Discrimination Suit, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 11, 2015

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