We’ve all heard the phrase: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Indeed, that point has been driven-home to at least one employer in Alabama: Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse While ignorance of the law is not a good excuse, sometimes, ignorance of the facts can provide employers with a defense to employment discrimination claims.
The vast majority of federal employment laws only prohibit intentional discrimination. As a result, if a decision-maker possesses no knowledge (i.e. ignorance) of an employee’s protected status, then numerous decisions hold that there was no intentional discrimination. For example, an employee suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act must prove that he or she was fired “because of” a disability. But, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has clearly held that “a decision–maker who lacks actual knowledge of an employee’s disability cannot fire the employee ‘because of’ that disability.” Cordoba v. Dillard’s, Inc., 419 F.3d 1169, 1186 (11th Cir. 2005). The Court has reached similar conclusions in cases involving allegations of: religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lubetsky v. Applied Card Sys., 296 F.3d 1301, 1306 (11th Cir. 2002)(” an employer cannot intentionally discriminate against an individual based on his religion unless the employer knows the individual’s religion.”); and, retaliation under Title VII, Brungart v. BellSouth Telecomm., Inc., 231 F.3d 791, 799 (11th Cir.2000) (“A decision maker cannot have been motivated to retaliate by something unknown to him.”).
This post is not intended to encourage employers and decision makers to remain blissfully ignorant of issues in the work place. Indeed, ignoring work conditions can quickly lead to more law suits. But, if a decision maker was truly unaware that a terminated employee was part of a protected class, then there is a potential defense to an employment discrimination claim.