Legal Update: Why Conducting Objective Investigations Is Important
The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts’ May 17, 2019, summary judgment decision in Baer et al v. Montachusett Regional Technical School District, Case No. 16-40052-TSH (D. Mass. May 17, 2019), illustrates the importance for organizations to conduct objective and comprehensive investigations.
The lawsuit was initiated by Kenneth and Denise Baer (husband and wife). The Baers were terminated from their employment at Montachusett Regional Technical School District ("Monty Tech"). The couple asserted several claims against Monty Tech arising from the terminations.
Specifically, the Baers alleged unlawful gender discrimination pursuant to Title VII and state law; retaliation for engaging in protected conduct in violation of Title VII and state law; and other claims. Mrs. Baer claimed that her termination was, rather than a result of her poor treatment of other employees, a retaliatory response for Mrs. Baer's sexual harassment claim against an employee.
Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against persons who complain about unlawful discriminatory employment practices. If a plaintiff makes a prima facie case, then the burden shifts to the defendant to produce evidence that the adverse employment actions were taken for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.
Monty Tech did not dispute that Mrs. Baer was engaged in protected conduct or that she suffered an adverse action. Instead, Monty Tech urged the Court to grant summary judgment because Mrs. Baer could not: (1) establish a causal nexus between her complaints and subsequent termination; and (2) show that Monty Tech's neutral reason for firing her—that Mrs. Baer retaliated against an employee and intimidated another—was pretextual.
In agreeing with Monty Tech and granting summary judgment regarding Mrs. Baer’s Title VII and state law retaliation claims, the Court noted: (1) Mrs. Baer’s termination came after a comprehensive internal investigation, which included interviews of at least 17 people, as well as the Baers; (2) the Monty Tech superintendent made the termination determination based upon evidence garnered from the investigation; (3) Mrs. Baer did not proffer evidence that the internal investigative procedure was irregular in any way; (4) the record did not indicate the Monty Tech superintendent did not believe the veracity of the allegations; and (5) similarly situated male teachers were also terminated for similar conduct.
Based on this court decision, it is important for organizations to develop and implement investigation policies and procedures that are used consistently regardless of position, gender, race, ethnicity and other characteristics.
Contact Michael Buckner (firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-315-0190) for more information on developing objective and comprehensive policies and procedures.