The 6th Circuit has issued a new opinion considering the “reasonable belief” and “honest belief” doctrines applied to retaliation claims under Title VII. In Yazdian v. ConMed Endoscopic Technologies, Inc., Case No. 14-3245 (July 14, 2015) recommended for full text publication, Plaintiff alleged that defendant discriminated against him because of his national origin and terminated after he complained of discrimination. The trial court dismissed both claims, but the Sixth Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Karen Nelson Moore, reversed on the retaliation claim and affirmed on the discrimination claim.

The Court rejected Defendant’s argument that Yazdian’s complaints of discrimination had been “too vague” to support a retaliation claim. Yazdian’s complaints, including multiple statements that he would contact an attorney, that he would be bringing a lawsuit or charges, and an allegation of hostile work environment, were sufficient to “put ConMed on notice that Yadian believed that [his supervisor’s] conduct was illegal”. In particular, the Court held:

“Hostile work environment” is a term of art, which refers to an unlawful employment practice under Title VII that arises because of “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult[s]” repeatedly directed at an employee on the basis of a protected characteristic. See Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 115-16 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, an employee who complains that an employer is creating a “hostile work environment” engages in Title-VIIprotected activity when the context objectively reveals that the employee is using the expression to complain about repeated abusive discriminatory comments or treatment. A reasonable jury No. 14-3745 Yazdian v. ConMed Endoscopic Tech, Inc. Page 12 could conclude that Yazdian used and intended the phrase “hostile work environment” to reference discriminatory treatment because he was aware of the legal significance of the term and meant it to be a complaint about national-origin or religious discrimination.

The Court then went on to address the “reasonable belief” doctrine. Precedent and EEOC guidance clearly establish that an employee is protected under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions when he/she complains of conduct that the employee reasonably and in good-faith believes is unlawful — even if the predicate conduct is not discriminatory as a matter of law. The question of whether the employee’s belief was reasonable and good-faith contains objective and subjective components and is “necessarily fact-dependent, varying with the circumstances of the case”. Moreover, in assessing the reasonableness of the employee’s belief, the court must assess the totality of the circumstances “analyzed in light of the employee’s training and experience”. The Court remanded to the trial court for further consideration on this issue.

The Court then rejected Defendant’s contention that it was not liable under Title VII where “it had an ‘honest belief’ in its nondiscriminatory reason for firing” Plaintiff. The Court held that such a defense is available only where the employer makes a reasonably informed and considered decision on particular facts. Here, Defendant did not do so. Among other failings, the employer relied solely on the supervisor’s account of events, did not interview Plaintiff or his co-workers or past managers, did not read Plaintiff’s rebuttal to the charges against him, and did not allow Plaintiff to file a discrimination complaint. The Court concluded:

Indeed, ConMed appears to have made the decision to terminate Yazdian entirely based on [the supervisor’s] description of the phone call with Yazdian. “One conversation [does] not establish sufficient particularized facts about the truth behind [the supervisor’s] statements, let alone [his] motive.” Shazor, 744 F.3d at 961. Thus, a reasonable jury could find that ConMed’s belief in the reason for Yazdian’s termination was not honestly held because ConMed did not investigate Yazdian’s discrimination complaint and blindly followed Sweatt’s recommendation to terminate Yazdian.

It’s a good opinion for plaintiffs and is worth reading in full.

For information or questions regarding this post and appeals of Federal or State claims, readers can contact the author Charlotte Croson. Ms. Croson leads Nacht Law’s appellate practice in the Federal and State Courts.