As recently reported on the Squire Sanders’ Sixth Circuit blog, the Sixth Circuit recently clarified its jurisprudence on the “honest belief” standard. Resuscitating Plaintiff-Appellant Johnnie Brooks, [pdf] Jr.’s (“Brooks”) claim under the Age Discrimination Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., (“ADEA”) the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court, finding Brooks established a prima facie case of age discrimination and provided sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment.
In this case, the Sixth Circuit focused on clarifying its rejection of the Seventh Circuit’s honest belief doctrine, which states: “‘so long as the employer honestly believed in the proffered reason,’ an employee cannot prove pretext even if the employer’s reason in the end is shown to be ‘mistaken, foolish, trivial, or baseless.’” Wright v. Murray Guard, Inc., 455 F.3d 702, 707-08 (6th Cir. 2006). Instead, the Sixth Circuit has adopted a “modified honest belief approach,” which focuses on whether the employer made a reasonably informed and considered decision before taking the adverse employment action. The Court notes that while it will not “’micro-manage the process used by the employers in making their employment decisions,’ we also will not blindly assume that an employer’s decision of its reasons is honest.’” (Id.) “Therefore, ‘[w]hen the employee is able to produce sufficient evidence to establish that the employer failed to make a reasonably informed and considered decision before taking its adverse employment action’…then any reliance placed by the employer is such a process cannot be said to be honestly held.’” (Id).
Under this standard, the burden falls on the employer to point to specific facts that it held at the time the decision was made, which would justify its belief in the proffered reason for termination. The Sixth Circuit ultimately held that the employer failed to provide sufficient evidence to establish that its reliance was “honestly held.”
The Court’s opinion puts employers on notice that they will need to do more than simply state an “honest belief” to demonstrate a reasonably informed and considered decision. Thus, employers are best advised to make sure that they are consistently and carefully documenting adverse employment actions and the rationale behind their employment decisions.