What happens if an employer takes adverse action against an employee based on a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason that later turns out to be wrong? Suppose, for example, an employer fires an employee based on a genuine belief that the employee violated the employer’s policies, but it turns out that, in fact, the employee did not. Is the employer now susceptible to a Title VII discrimination claim based on its mistaken, yet honest, belief? According to a recent opinion from the Fifth Circuit, the answer is no.

In Harville v. City of Houston, Mississippi (No. 18-60117, 5th Cir., Dec. 19, 2019), Mary Paula Harville, a white female, was hired as deputy clerk for the City of Houston, Mississippi in 2005. At the time of her termination in 2015, there were four deputy clerks in the clerk’s office, each with their own primary duties. Harville’s involved processing and invoicing certain taxes. The other three deputy clerks were Kathy Smith (white), Barbara Buggs (black), and Shequala Jones (black). Buggs and Jones were related to Sheina Jones (black), a member of the City’s Board of Aldermen (the “Board”).

In the fall of 2015, the City faced a budget shortfall and began considering ways to cut costs. The City Clerk at the time, Margaret Futral, cautioned Harville that the Board might vote to reduce the number of deputy clerks from four to three. On September 15, 2015, the Board met to consider laying off four city employees, including one deputy clerk. In an effort to save Harville’s job, Futral and Mayor Stacy Parker urged the Board to consider other budget saving methods, like cuts to hours and insurance. Alderman Uhiren stated that he considered Harville’s job to be seasonal since it involved tax collection. Futral disputed this and suggested it would make more sense to cut Shequala Jones’s position, since the other deputy clerks had adequately covered Jones’s job responsibilities while she was out on maternity leave. Futral also advocated that Harville’s tax duties could not be replicated by another clerk. Alderwoman Sheina Jones responded that Buggs (her sister) had trained Harville and knew the job.

The Board ultimately rejected the proposed solutions that would have saved Harville’s job and voted unanimously to eliminate four full-time positions, including Harville’s. According to Harville, Mayor Parker told her she was terminated because the Board determined that her job was seasonal. The Board did not post or fill Harville’s position after her departure.

Harville subsequently filed a charge of race and age discrimination with the EEOC, obtained a right-to-sue, and filed suit in the Northern District of Mississippi alleging racial discrimination under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. With respect to her race-based claim, Harville alleged, in essence, that the Board cut Harville because she was white and retained Shequala Jones because she was black.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the City, and Harville appealed the district court’s decision as to her race discrimination claim.

In affirming the district court’s summary judgment ruling, the Fifth Circuit noted that the Board chose to eliminate Harville’s position because it genuinely believed her primary duties (taxes) were seasonal. The Fifth Circuit also rejected Harville’s argument that the district court failed to credit her evidence from which a jury could infer that the Board’s seasonality explanation was pretext for discrimination—specifically, that Futral maintained that the job was not seasonal and that Alderwoman Jones suggested that Buggs (her sister) could adequately cover Harville’s job duties, which turned out to be untrue. The Court observed:

Futral testified that the actual decisionmakers—the members of the [B]oard—believed that the job was seasonal.[] The issue at the pretext stage is not whether the Board’s reason was actually correct or fair, but whether the decisionmakers honestly believed the reason. Harville has not provided sufficient evidence from which a jury could infer that the City’s decision here was not a simple reduction-in-force decision based on objective criteria.”

In sum, even though Harville’s job was not seasonal and Buggs could not adequately cover Harville’s tax duties, the Board honestly believed the opposite when it decided to eliminate Harville’s job. This genuine belief precluded a finding of pretext or discriminatory intent at the summary judgment stage. It didnot matter that the Board decided to fire Harville based on objective criteria that was ultimately wrong, so long as the Board’s decision was nondiscriminatory.

Thus, for employers facing a discrimination claim, being wrong can also mean being right (or, at least, being nondiscriminatory).