Is complaining about a hostile work environment enough to support a retaliation claim? Maybe. Maybe not.


(At least I didn’t say, “It depends.”)

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who oppose a practice that Title VII forbids, such as discrimination or fostering a hostile work environment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion.

An internal complaint will generally suffice as a form of opposition activity, provided it is directed at “an unlawful employment practice” under Title VII. While courts give plaintiffs plenty of latitude here—Title VII covers both actually unlawful employment actions and those the employee reasonably believes to be unlawful—there are logical limits.

I’ll give you an example involving claims of discrimination because of sex.

I read a recent Fourth Circuit opinion in which an employee-plaintiff complained to her employer about a “hostile working environment for me and some members of my team.” The plaintiff’s team had both men and women, and her internal complaint did not say that anyone singled her out for mistreatment because of her gender. Indeed, the plaintiff complained that members of her team (both male and female) were being subjected to the same hostility and harassment. In that context, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff’s internal complaint was “undisputedly facially neutral as to sex.” Thus, the court had “no basis to infer that [the plaintiff] believed she was opposing unlawful discrimination.”

But what if I told you that the alleged harassers were male? Should that pump air into the tires of the female plaintiff’s retaliation claim? The Fourth Circuit didn’t think so:

“The mere fact that the individuals accused in the complaint of the harassing conduct…are male does not alter this conclusion. For the law does not blindly ascribe to sex all personal conflicts between individuals of different sexes.” (cleaned up).

Hey, hold up! The record reflected that the defendant assigned the complaint to an investigator responsible for investigating potential Title VII complaints. Does that change anything? Not really:

“[The investigator] indicated that the reason for this staffing decision was the complaint’s references to a ‘hostile working environment’ and ‘harassment.’…Importantly, however, after meeting with [the plaintiff] and collecting her information as she gave it, [the investigator] determined that [the plaintiff’s] complaint did not implicate Title VII but rather stemmed from ‘poor communication’ and ‘poor relationships’ with her supervisors.” (cleaned up).

The employer did the right thing here. It took the plaintiff’s complaint seriously and took reasonable steps to stop the complained-of behavior by investigating it.

But complaints of general mistreatment—especially when not based on a protected class—are not enough to trigger a viable retaliation claim.

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
Contact Information