Sharon Sybrandt was fired from her position as an Operations Assistant Manager at one of Home Depot’s Nashville stores after she allowed a co-worker to use her password-protected user ID to modify a special order transaction for Sybrandt. In addition, Sybrandt herself subsequently entered computerized “notes” on the transaction, indicating that she wanted to cancel part of the order and receive a refund. Both actions were in violation of the company’s “no-self-serve” policy. After Sybrandt was replaced by a male employee, she sued Home Depot, alleging gender discrimination under both federal and state laws. The lower court granted the company’s motion for summary judgment in April 2008, and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal recently upheld that decision. Sybrandt v. Home Depot, USA, Inc., 6th Cir., No. 08-5598, March 26, 2009.

Sybrandt began working at Home Depot in 1991. In 2006, her employment was terminated for an alleged violation of a company policy that prohibits employees from working on their own purchases and transactions. Sybrandt testified that she was aware of the policy, and understood that its purposes were to deter theft and dishonesty, and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. However, she argued that the decision to fire her was “unfair and extreme,” and asserted that the termination was simply a pretext for discrimination.

Under the now-familiar McDonnell Douglas shifting burden analysis, an individual has the initial burden to come forward with a prima facie case of discrimination; the employer is then obligated to show a legitimate business reason for its actions; the ultimate burden is on the employee to show that the proffered reason is a pretext for discriminatory motive. In this case, the parties agreed, for purposes of summary judgment, that Sybrandt was able to set forth a prima facie case, and that Home Depot had set forth a legitimate business reason for its action. The argument, then, was whether the proffered reason was based in fact, or whether it simply was a pretext to mask discriminatory treatment.

While Sybrandt argued that the company’s reason was overly technical and not based in fact, Home Depot was able to set forth evidence of an internal investigation, taken after it was made aware of Sybrandt’s actions. That evidence showed that the investigator – one of Home Depot’s Employment Practices Managers (EPMs) – believed that Sybrandt had breached the company’s policy, and that he had recommended discharging 18 Home Depot employees for the same reason over a previous three year period. In spite of Sybrandt’s disagreement with Home Depot regarding whether her actions technically violated the policy, it was the company’s thorough investigation that supported Home Depot’s assertion that it had an honest belief in its proffered nondiscriminatory reason for the termination.

An employee cannot establish that the reason for an adverse employment action is discriminatory simply by showing that the action may have been technically incorrect. The key inquiry in assessing whether an employer holds an honest belief that its action was appropriate is whether that employer made a “reasonably informed and considered decision” before taking the complained-of adverse action. In this case, Home Depot’s thorough, complete, and reasonable investigation (in which it interviewed Sybrandt and her co-workers, reviewed security camera footage of the incidents, and obtained written statements from various witnesses) supported its assertion that it took the action necessary to enforce its policy, and helped it to avoid legal liability in the matter. The decision to fire Sybrandt reflected a “considered” judgment, which Sybrandt was unable to contradict with any evidence other than her own testimony.