Sham Investigations – Terminated in Retaliation?
In Harden v. Marion County Sheriff’s Dept. (7th Cir. Aug. 25, 2015), the Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of a Title VII retaliation claim, and in doing so, explained in detail when “sham investigations” can be grounds for pretext. The plaintiff in Harden claimed that he was terminated in retaliation for providing information during an internal investigation into issues of race discrimination with other personnel. The Sheriff’s Department, in contrast, claimed that it terminated the plaintiff because Internal Affairs found that he perpetrated a theft of an inmate’s money.
The plaintiff’s case largely hinged on demonstrating pretext behind the Internal Affairs investigation and finding. In other words, the plaintiff had to prove that it was a “sham investigation.” Per the Seventh Circuit, a sham investigation means “persons conducting the investigation fabricate, ignore, or misrepresent evidence, or the investigation is circumscribed so that it leads to the desired outcome (for instance, by deliberately failing to interview certain witnesses).” A sham investigation also requires that the decision-makers also be the same individuals who harbor racial or retaliatory animus. The Seventh Circuit further explained that faulty reasoning or mistaken judgment is not enough to prove a sham investigation. Instead, plaintiffs need to provide evidence which would show that the decision-makers did not actually believe in the investigation or its findings; to do this, plaintiffs “must identify such weaknesses implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions” so that a reasonable person could not find the investigation or its results worthy of credence.
In Harden, the plaintiff failed to meet this burden. The record reflected a fair and thorough investigation, which found that plaintiff misappropriated funds from an inmate. But the Seventh Circuit’s analysis of sham investigations should serve as a road map for employees and employers in the future.