Employee discipline decisions are rarely easy. Yet, few decisions are as difficult as trying to determine what discipline should be imposed on an employee who the employer believes has, for whatever reasons, fabricated a sexual harassment claim. Undoubtedly, the fabricated claim may harm the employer and the falsely accused employee. It would seem unreasonable, therefore, for the employer to simply let the incident pass. On the other hand, the government has enacted strong legal protections to encourage employees to report sexual harassment and to prevent an employer from retaliating against such an employee. A recent California case highlights the difficulties an employer may face when confronting this complicated issue.
The City of Los Angeles terminated a police officer who the City believed had fabricated a sexual harassment complaint. Following his termination, the officer filed suit and eventually received a jury verdict in his favor in excess of two million dollars. A California appellate court, citing federal law, reversed the jury verdict and found that an employee who fabricates a sexual harassment claim is not protected from discipline. Although this decision is a good result for employers, an employer must still take reasonable steps to investigate and have solid proof that the employee making the sexual claim knowingly made a false report before implementing discipline or face a possible retaliation claim.
A Los Angeles police officer, Richard Joaquin, alleged that his supervisor, James Sands, had retaliated against Joaquin after Joaquin rebuffed Sands’ sexual advances. According to Joaquin’s complaint, Sands asked Joaquin out and, after Joaquin denied the request, Sands asked Joaquin not to tell anyone that he was homosexual. Nevertheless, Sands allegedly approached Joaquin again in the gym and commented about Joaquin’s arms, showed up for no reason at Joaquin’s traffic stops, and attended a basketball game Joaquin played in and asked Joaquin if he was going to take a shower. Joaquin eventually made a personnel complaint against Sands with the police department.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s tribunal conducted a thorough investigation and determined that Joaquin’s allegations were false and made up in an effort to “pre-empt” discipline that Sands was getting ready to issue to Joaquin for documented performance issues. Based on the results of the investigation, the City terminated Joaquin. Joaquin challenged the termination in state court, and the court ordered his reinstatement. Joaquin was reinstated and transferred to a different division. Joaquin alleged that although he was reinstated, the City had put a “black mark” on his record. Joaquin then brought another suit alleging that the department’s actions were retaliatory. A jury found in favor of Joaquin on his retaliation claim and awarded him approximately two million dollars.
The City appealed. It argued that although there was a direct causal connection between Joaquin’s termination and his sexual harassment allegation, the termination occurred not because of the report, but because the report was false. The court stated: “We thus conclude that in appropriate circumstances, an employer may discipline or terminate an employee for making false charges, even where the subject matter of those charges is an allegation of sexual harassment.” (Emphasis added.) Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles, 202 Cal.App.4th 1207, 1226, 136 Cal.Rptr.3d 472 (2012). To rule otherwise, the court stated, would allow employees to immunize any malicious or unreasonable internal complaints simply by filing a discrimination complaint. Taken to an extreme, an employee could achieve lifetime tenure by filing continuous false complaints against his or her employer.
The “appropriate circumstances” cited by the court allude to an employer’s duty to establish a good faith belief as to the reliability of the employee’s complaint. An employer should not simply assume, for whatever reason, that an employee’s complaint is false. Instead, if an employee makes a claim of sexual harassment, the employer should conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations. If the results of the investigation provide strong evidence to support a good faith belief that the allegations are false, then the employer may discipline—up to and including termination—the offending employee.
As with all retaliation claims, the ultimate question is whether the employer’s stated reason for the discipline was actually a pretext to hide the employer’s discriminatory motives of terminating the employee for exercising his or her rights. Although an employer must tread lightly, if it conducts a thorough investigation and can establish that an employee knowingly made a false harassment claim, this opinion provides the employer with some authority that to do so will not automatically provide an employee with a viable retaliation claim.