Recently in Retaliation Category

January 20, 2015

FACT OR FICTION: To protect a pregnant employee, a company can make her stay home.

Fact or Fiction?That's right folks. It's time for another edition of "Fact or Fiction" a/k/a "Quick Answers to Quick Questions" a/k/a QATQQ f/k/a "I don't feel like writing a long blog post."

Oh, if I had a nickel for every time I got this question from an employer, "Hey Eric. We have this pregnant employee and she is very close to term. We're concerned that if she continues working all the way up to childbirth, she may harm herself or the fetus. Can we require her to stay home?"

Eek! Check out this recent press release from the EEOC in which the agency announced that it is suing an employer, which allegedly required a pregnant employee to take unpaid leave until she was cleared by a doctor indicating that she could work despite her pregnancy. The EEOC further alleges, when the employee failed to provide a release, and after she and her mother disputed the legality of the requirement, the employee was fired in retaliation.

So, under federal anti-discrimination law, the answer to today's QATQQ is, generally, fiction.

NoteA United States Supreme Court majority opinion predicted that Title VII, which contains the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, would preempt state law, thereby absolving employers that complied with Title VII from liability for any fetal injury. (Although the concurrence was more skeptical). Further, that same case recognized a narrow safety exception that would allow an employer to remove a pregnant employee from the workplace; namely, in instances in which pregnancy actually interferes with the employee's ability to perform the job.

January 13, 2015

I was right. This appellate court employment-law decision was one of the worst of 2014.

About a year ago, I blogged here about a dreadful Sixth Circuit opinion, in which the court concluded that the plaintiff may have a discrimination claim for receiving the specific transfer he requested (after having interviewed for the position).

Now, if you read the comments on my post, you'll see that some of my readers took issue with my analysis of the case.

Well, I see your comments and raise you a scathing Justice Alito dissent from the United States Supreme Court's denial of certiorari:

The decision of the Sixth Circuit in this case--holding that respondent suffered an adverse employment action when his employer transferred him to a position for which he had applied--qualifies for review under that standard. Indeed, the holding of the court below is so clearly wrong that summary reversal is warranted. The strangeness of the Court of Appeals' holding may lead this Court to believe that the holding is unlikely to figure in future cases, but the decision, if left undisturbed, will stand as a binding precedent within the Sixth Circuit....The decision of the court below is unprecedented and clearly contrary to the statutes on which respondent's claims are based.

#TeamAlito

January 5, 2015

It's prolly not retaliation when you fire an employee who masturbates in your parking lot

Or, at least, when you honestly believe that one of your employees is masturbating in the parking lot.

(Unless, of course, you're like by buddy Fred, who operates Parking Lot Self-Gratification, LLC).

Let's just pretend that parenthetical remained in my head, ok?

After the jump, it's a lesson on the law of retaliation involving the case of a school district employee who was fired for allegedly masturbating in a car...in the school parking lot...during school hours. And he claimed that his firing was retaliatory in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Allow that to sink in for a sec, then hit jump while I kiss the head of my golden blogging statuette and rub her belly...

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Continue reading "It's prolly not retaliation when you fire an employee who masturbates in your parking lot" »

November 14, 2014

Train your supervisors not to shoot at those who complain about discrimination

Just another HR Pro Tip from your old buddy, Meyer. Hey, what would you guys do without me?

Sage advice for American businesses coming up after the jump...

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Continue reading "Train your supervisors not to shoot at those who complain about discrimination" »

September 22, 2014

EEOC's attack on garden-variety severance agreements suffers a potentially MAJOR setback

Earlier this year, the EEOC filed a federal lawsuit against CVS in which it claimed that drugstore chain "conditioned the receipt of severance benefits for certain employees on an overly broad severance agreement set forth in five pages of small print." Specifically, the EEOC took issue with several common provisions that you guys probably use in your severance agreements:

  • a general release;
  • a non-disparagement obligation;
  • a confidentiality provision;
  • a covenant not to sue; or
  • a cooperation clause

But don't go throwing your severance agreements in the trash just yet.

More after the jump...

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Continue reading "EEOC's attack on garden-variety severance agreements suffers a potentially MAJOR setback" »

September 5, 2014

Final Score: HIPAA 1 - Retaliation 0

See how a federal appellate court shut out a plaintiff's claims of retaliation after she was fired for forwarding confidential documents to herself, purportedly to preserve evidence for an age-discrimination lawsuit filed by a former coworker.

What I did there, you see that?

After the jump...

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Continue reading "Final Score: HIPAA 1 - Retaliation 0" »

July 25, 2014

EEOC shows no goodwill to Goodwill Industries: $100K for retaliation

Thumbnail image for eeoclogo.pngJust in case you thought that the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses a soft touch towards any business that may discriminate -- let alone a charity.

Earlier this week, the EEOC announced here that Goodwill Industries will pay $100,000 to settle a long-standing retaliation lawsuit.

In its lawsuit, the EEOC charged that Goodwill retaliated against a worker by firing her after she testified on behalf of another Goodwill employee in a previous federal sex and age discrimination lawsuit.

Ladies and Gentlemen: This EEOC does not mess around!

February 18, 2014

Bad things happen when management laments to HR that black people are ugly

teeth.pngJust a reminder that some managers still engage in really stupid behavior.

I was reading this case about an HR Manager of a dentistry practice.

Following an interview between a dentist in her practice and an African-American woman, the dentist allegedly commented to the HR Manager that the person would not be hired, as there were already too many blacks in Lewisville. The HR Manager then supposedly responded that "race is irrelevant." 

And, after the HR Manager told another member of management what had transpired, the manager stated that there were too many blacks in Lewisville and that they were ugly.

Shortly thereafter, the company sacked the HR Manager, to which she responded that her termination was retaliatory; i.e., for complaining about her former employer's discriminatory actions.

In defending the lawsuit, the defendants first contended that the plaintiff had failed to establish that she had complained about discrimination.

Since, all that is required to demonstrate a complaint about discrimination is an understanding that the plaintiff is protesting discriminatory conduct, the plaintiff responded to the defendants' argument, "Like, duh." that her discussion with management was to advise the company of the wrongness of the hiring dentist's conduct and cause him to change his course of action.

Not surprisingly, the court accepted this argument.

Like, duh.

Undeterred, the defendants argued that the plaintiff could not connect her comment to her termination. The plaintiff responded that the proximity in time between her comment and her termination would suffice. Further, she argued that the defendants' reasons for firing her were pretextual, especially in light of Defendants' chief financial officer's statement that the plaintiff had been terminated because "she hired too many blacks."

Good gawd!

The defendants argued that it had a number of non-discriminatory performance-related reasons for terminating the plaintiff's employment, and those may be true. However, allegations of racist statements attributed to multiple members of management is also a very good reason to settle a case.

And increase the sensitivity training budget.

(But then again, if the allegations in this particular case are true, I don't know that any amount of training would fix such a systemic problem of prejudice).

February 12, 2014

Are lots of your severance agreements retaliatory? EEOC says yes.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for EEOC.jpgWhen your business offers a severance agreement to a departing employee, does it contain:

  • a general release;
  • a non-disparagement obligation;
  • a confidentiality provision;
  • a covenant not to sue; or
  • a cooperation clause

Well, if it contains any one (or more) of these provisions, head over to Jon Hyman's Ohio Employer's Law Blog right away to learn about a new lawsuit that the EEOC has filed in which it alleges that each of these common severance-agreement provisions amounts to retaliation.

If the EEOC prevails here and in subsequent similar actions in other jurisdictions, the effects would be game-changing.

So, definitely go to Jon's blog for more information.

February 5, 2014

Employee claims discrimination, then her friend gets fired. Is that retaliation?

BFF.jpg

Back in January 2011, when I had only one child and an Aston Martin savings fund, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. In that case, the Court held that an employer violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act if it takes action against an employee who is in the same "zone of interest" as another employee who files a Charge of Discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In Thompson, a company received an EEOC Charge of Discrimination and allegedly fired the employee's fiancé in response. The Supreme Court held that, if true, this set of fact would amount to retaliation.

Now, fast forward to 2014. I have four children, I'm two Happy Meals away from declaring bankruptcy, and, last night, I dined on the leftover ketchup packets.

Meanwhile, the EEOC has filed an action on behalf of a woman who claims that she was fired because a co-worker, who happens to be her very good friend, complained about retaliation at work.

Does the fired friend have a claim for retaliation?

According to a New Hampshire federal court (opinion here), she may:

The complaint alleges that Mulcahey was a close friend of Wilkins, the individual who engaged in the protected conduct. The two women worked together at a prior company, and Wilkins was influential in procuring Mulcahey's job with Fuller Oil. On Mulcahey's desk at work she displayed birthday and mother's day cards from Wilkins alongside pictures of Wilkins's daughter and the two women together. The complaint also alleges that Fred Fuller knew of this close friendship. Fuller knew that the two women spoke frequently and spent time together out of work - as demonstrated by his statement about setting up a "play date" with the two women and Wilkins's daughter. When Fuller wanted to contact Wilkins, he asked Mulcahey about her whereabouts and requested her personal email address from Mulcahey. This relationship, as pled, exists somewhere in the fact-specific gray area between close friend and casual acquaintance. Although I could not say that such a friendship definitively supports a successful claim, I also cannot say as a matter of law that it does not.

Let's put the Thompson test aside for a sec. There's something really messed up if you're even considering firing anyone (other than the alleged harasser) as a response to an employee complaint of discrimination. 

Certainly not a move I'd recommend to a client.

January 16, 2014

And we have an early contender for worst employment-law decision of 2014

roughlegal.jpg

That may be sugar coating it a bit.

A county employee, who applied for a lateral transfer, and ultimately received that transfer, was able to convince two judges on a federal appellate court that the transfer was discriminatory.

That's right. An employee may have a discrimination claim for receiving the specific transfer he requested.

Here's what the two-judge majority wrote in this opinion:

[W]e conclude that under certain circumstances, a voluntary or requested transfer may still give rise to an adverse employment action...We emphasize that the key focus of the inquiry should not be whether the lateral transfer was requested or not requested, or whether the aggrieved plaintiff must ex tempore voice dissatisfaction, but whether the "conditions of the transfer" would have been "objectively intolerable to a reasonable person."

Let me stop there for a second to add that the plaintiff in this case testified that he viewed the transfer as improving his potential for career advancement. Still, that didn't appear to matter much to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals:

Indeed, an employee's opinion of the transfer, whether positive or negative, has no dispositive bearing on an employment actions classification as "adverse."

For what it's worth, one judge did dissent. I'm on board with his reasoning:

Deleon voluntarily applied for the job with full knowledge of its pros and cons, making it difficult to fathom how he could premise a claim of retaliation on the transfer alone. A retaliation claim requires the employer to do something bad to the employee--something that might "have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." That concept cannot be bent and stretched to cover an employer's decision to grant an employee's request for a transfer. No reasonable employee in Deleon's position would have interpreted the transfer as an act designed to prevent him from exercising his rights against anti-discrimination.

And, thankfully, I practice in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where the employers I represent are not bound by the majority's decision here.

For more on this decision, check out Jon Hyman's post at the Ohio Employer's Law Blog.

December 2, 2013

Employee legally fired for complaining on Facebook about the boss' "creapy hands"

5cake.jpgGenerally speaking, those who wait five years to complain about perceived sexual harassment in the workplace, don't win lawsuits if they are eventually fired.

But what happens when the complaint takes the form of a status update on Facebook? Does that offer the employee extra protection?

Find out after the jump...

Continue reading "Employee legally fired for complaining on Facebook about the boss' "creapy hands"" »

November 25, 2013

Woman fired after getting sniffed by men 24 times may have a retaliation claim

nose.jpgPlay some Skynyrd, man!

(Just pretend the song is about reckless indulgences in the workplace, rather than drugs and needles and such, k?)

Well, this is a new one for me.

A woman claimed that she was employed as a leasing manager for four days. And during those four days, two male co-workers sniffed her 12 times each.

*** Carries the one, curses, grabs calculator ***

The woman further claimed that, shortly after she complained to her supervisor about the sniffing, she was fired without explanation.

Sounds like we may have viable retaliation claim: (1) complaint about sexual harassment; (2) termination; (3) complaint caused termination.

Amazingly, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas granted summary judgment to the employer, concluding that no reasonable juror in the woman's shoes would have viewed herself as a victim of sexual harassment. To paraphrase the lower court's logic: "It's not like these guys grabbed her or anything. And besides, it was harassment, not sexual harassment."

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in this opinion was all like, "WTH!" Wait, the court actually said this:

We hold that there is a genuine dispute of material fact whether the maintenance men's behavior violated Title VII....The sniffing and hovering over a woman, by two men, in a small, confined space could be viewed by a reasonable jury as harassment based on Royal's sex. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the maintenance men sniffing and hovering over Royal if she were a man.

Remember, sexual harassment can take many forms in the workplace. When you train your employees, and especially your supervisors who are tasked with receiving complaints of sexual harassment, educate them about the many ways in which an employee may be sexually harassed.

Including sniffing.

November 12, 2013

Placing do-not-hire notes in personnel files of employees who file EEOC charges is dumb

icyhot.jpg

If I ever handled a plaintiff's case again, at deposition, I would be sure to take a page out of the playbook of Texas employment lawyer, Mike Maslanka:

Ask the manager who decided to fire the plaintiff whether he's eligible for re-hire. An unprepared manager might blurt out, "Of course not; he's suing us." Say hello to a retaliation claim.

I thought of Mike as I read this recent Texas Court of Appeals case about an employer that admitted at trial that, its receipt of EEOC right to sue letters "prompted" it to place the following notes on the Charging Parties' personnel files:

"Please note he is not eligible for rehire ever. Tried to sue us. Simply tell him, 'sorry but we have nothing for you at this time. Please try again. Have a nice day.' Not for rehire. Per Ben G."

Folks, that's stupider than the time in high school that a combustible combination of curiosity and boredom led me to disregard the warning on the container of Icy Hot balm, about where not to rub the balm.

The notes in the personnel files was enough for the appellate court to uphold the jury finding of both retaliation and malice.

Remember, that anti-retaliation laws apply not only to current employees, but also former ones too. And if there's anything a jury hates more than straight-up discrimination, it's retaliation, which happens to be the most popular claim filed with the EEOC.

September 24, 2013

Court ok's firing EAP employee upset with company's workplace investigation

J. Neil DeMasters worked as an EAP counselor for Carilion Clinic. During the course of his employment, a co-worker came to him complaining to have been a victim of sexual harassment. Mr. DeMasters relayed his co-worker's complaint to HR. Then he was fired.

Does Mr. DeMasters have a possible retaliation claim? Nope.

DeMasters' statements to Carilion's human relations department qualify as protected oppositional conduct. There are no allegations in this case that DeMasters played any role in Doe's sexual harassment complaint beyond counseling Doe through the EAP and relaying Doe's complaint to Carilion's human relations department. Merely ferrying Doe's allegations to Carilion's human relations department is in no sense oppositional, and DeMasters did not engage in protected activity in so doing.... DeMasters intended only to relay Doe's complaints to Carilion, not voice his own opposition to any unlawful employment practice, such as the sexual harassment or hostile work environment alleged by Doe.

Even the subsequent criticism Mr. DeMasters voiced concerning the company's handling of the subsequent investigation was not enough to create a viable claim.

DeMasters' statements to Carilion that Carilion was mishandling Doe's complaints are not protected oppositional conduct. DeMasters' complaints about the manner in which Carilion handled Doe's investigation do not concern a practice made unlawful under Title VII. Because DeMasters' criticism was directed to Carilion's processing of Doe's complaints, rather than the substance of those complaints, it is not actionable oppositional conduct.

Thinking about firing the employee who is critical of the way you investigate employee complaints of harassment? Do so at your own risk. Instead, for more egregious workplace harassment complaints, consider using a trained outside investigator to look into them. It's generally money well spent. 

The case is DeMasters v. Carilion Clinic.