Partner Ellen A. Brinkman and Senior Counsel Erin S. Conlin Obtain Eighth Circuit Affirmance in Discrimination and Defamation Case

August 2023

Minneapolis Partner Ellen A. Brinkman and Senior Counsel Erin S. Conlin obtained a victory at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in a published decision affirming summary judgment in a sex discrimination and defamation case brought against a bank by its former assistant vice president.

The plaintiff filed claims alleging sex discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act and defamation after she was terminated following an investigation into her conduct. After the plaintiff’s subordinate complained to the bank alleging that the plaintiff sexually harassed her at a local bar, the bank performed an investigation pursuant to its policies and ultimately terminated the plaintiff due to her conduct. The plaintiff claimed that the bank’s decision was discriminatory for a number of reasons, including that the bank failed to interview witnesses at the local bar and that the bank was biased because alleged male comparators were treated more favorably. The plaintiff also claimed defamation against the bank and the subordinate individually, claiming that statements made during the investigation and the subordinate’s sharing the incident with her family members were defamatory. The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota dismissed all claims at summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, finding no reason to doubt the bank’s reason for the plaintiff’s termination and finding that the statements made by the bank and the subordinate were protected. Regarding the sex discrimination claim, the Court held that the bank had discretion in performing its investigation and terminating the plaintiff based on its reasonable belief that she violated the bank’s policies. Specifically, the Court held that “[a] failure to interview some witnesses does not automatically create evidence of pretext.” Further, it held that “[e]ven if the Bank’s belief about [the plaintiff’s] conduct was mistaken, this does not automatically show [her] termination was motivated by sex discrimination.” 

Regarding the defamation claim, the Court agreed that the bank could not be liable for alleged defamatory statements made during the investigation because a qualified privilege attaches. The Court ruled that the statements were made on a proper occasion with a proper purpose. The statements made by the subordinate to her family members were also protected because the subordinate reasonably believed that her family’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s conduct would help her decide whether to report the incident to her employer, helping to protect her job. These statements were also motivated by a proper purpose, and the Court declined to find any actual malice by the subordinate.