Court of Appeal: Discharge of Executive Uncooperative in Investigation

is perfectly legal.

Applied Signal fired John McGrory.  One of his reports, Dana Thomas, complained to human resources that McGrory harassed / discriminated against her because of her sex / sexual orientation.  Applied hired an outside investigator.   McGrory did not like the investigator, but she exonerated him of mistreating Thomas.  She did find, though, that McGrory was untruthful and uncooperative during the investigation.  She also found that McGrory violated the company's anti-harassment policy because he made off-color jokes related to sex and national origin.

Applied fired McGrory, not for discrimination or harassment against Thomas, but for his lack of cooperation and deception during the investigation.  He sued Applied Signal, claiming not only wrongful termination, bur also sex discrimination and defamation.  He believed he was disfavored because of his male sex, that even at-will employees are entitled to notice of an investigation, and more.

McGrory argued Allied could not fire him for participating in the investigation, “'The public policy of California is to shield anyone participating in an investigation of discrimination from the possibility of retaliation,' presumably even if the participant is uncooperative and untruthful."

Wrong.  I have come across people who refused to participate in investigations without their lawyer, or simply were uncooperative.  I have heard some people question whether it is OK to fire someone for refusing to cooperate in an investigation.  (They don't read the blog, but maybe they should. Just sayin').

Anyway, the court of appeal has laid that issue to rest:

refusing to participate in or cooperate with an investigation into a discrimination claim is not participation or assistance and is not a protected activity. (Alack v. Beau Rivage Resorts, Inc. (S.D. Miss. 2003) 286 F.Supp.2d 771, 775; Bray v. Tenax Corp. (E.D. N.C. 1995) 905 F.Supp. 324, 328.)

Here's another news flash to those employees who lie during an investigation. They have no protection, either:

The participation immunity does not prohibit an employer from imposing discipline for an employee‟s misbehavior during an internal investigation, such as attempting to deceive the investigator. (Cf. Vasconcelos v. Meese, supra, 907 F.2d 111, 113.) “Lying in an internal investigation is disruptive of workplace discipline.” (Hatmaker, supra, 619 F.3d 741, 746.) “[W]hether to fire an employee for lying to the employer in the course of the business‟s conduct of an important internal investigation is basically a business decision; this decision, as with most business decisions, is not for the courts to second-guess as a kind of super-personnel department.” (Total System Services, supra, 221 F.3d 1171, 1176.)

McGrory also argued that the employer could not lawfully rely on fear of litigation with the accuser as a basis for firing him.  Really?  The Court of Appeal held that fear of liability also is a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing an accused harasser:

Employee also argues that his “relatively innocent behavior” could not justify “a sexual harassment claim.” Employee provides no authority requiring an Employer to retain an at-will employee until his conduct creates civil liability. 

The court also held that the VP of HR's explanation to another employee that McGrory was fired for being uncooperative was privileged and made without malice. No slander for you.

This is a significant case about the meaning of employment at will and the employer's freedom to discipline and discharge those who violate policies.

The opinion is McGrory v. Applied Signal Tech. and the opinion is here.