Articles Posted in Retaliation

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed into law legislation that expands the protections provided to employee-whistleblowers.  H.B. 300 extends whistleblower protections to employees who report noncompliance with the State’s campaign-contribution laws,who participate in an investigation or hearing regarding an alleged violation of the campaign-contribution laws, or who refuses to violate the campaign-contribution laws. Whistleblower

The practical effect of this new protection is limited, as it applies to a fairly narrow group of employees-those whose employer has some involvement in political fundraising.  But it serves as an excellent reminder about the importance of preventing unlawful retaliation.

Retaliation claims continue to top the list of claims filed with the EEOC.  Not only are they popular but they are some of the most successful for plaintiffs.  The reason for its popularity and its success is the same-retaliation happens.

Thankfully, most of us are not targets of workplace discrimination based on our race, gender, or disability.  But I’d challenge anyone to say that they’ve really never been the target of retaliation.  If you made a critical comment about a co-worker in front of your boss, you were probably subject to retaliation by that co-worker.  The retaliation could have been mild-maybe you don’t get invited to lunch that day.  It could be more overt-maybe a flat-out refusal to help the next time you request assistance from the co-worker.  Or it could be more covert-the coworker quietly (but intentionally) sows the seeds of poor performance with your boss, telling your boss every time you don’t make a meeting on time or leave early on a Friday. 

All of these things constitute retaliation.  But they’re not unlawful retaliation because they are not in response to you having engaged in a protected activity, such as reporting workplace discrimination or, now, refusing to violate the campaign-contribution law. 

So, how can employers prevent unlawful retaliation?  The key, in my opinion, is taking a step back.  We’ve all had our feelings hurt when a co-worker points out an error in our work while the boss is standing there.  But, the key is to take a step back, realize that you’re a rational, logical, thinking adult.  And move on.  No grudge holding.  It makes life far more difficult than necessary. 

See also

U.S.S.C. Clarifies the Applicable Standard for Retaliation Claims

Manager’s Drunk Facebook Post Leads to Retaliation Claim

3d Cir. Issues a Bitchin’ Constructive Discharge Decision

Business Is Booming . . . for the EEOC, Anyway

In United Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Supreme Court ruled that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII requires “but-for” causation. In other words, an unlawful reason has to be the reason for the adverse employment action. The Supreme Court had previously ruled that this type of “but-for” causation also is required in cases alleging age discrimination.

It does not, however, apply to cases of discrimination brought pursuant to Title VII. In those cases, the unlawful reason need only be a reason. There may be other, lawful reasons, but if an unlawful reason plays a part in the decision, then the decision is unlawful.

Here’s how it plays out.  Let’s say that I go to work for a new law firm. My new boss doesn’t think that women lawyers are worth much. He also really hates my nose ring (despite how lovely and not at all offensive it looks in person). Based on those two prejudices, he decides to not put me up for a promotion.

If I sued for gender discrimination under Title VII, I could meet my burden by showing that I did not get the promotion because of I’m a woman-even if he also decided not to promote me because of the nose piercing. That’s a mixed motive and that’s sufficient to establish a discrimination claim under Title VII.

The burden is different, however, if I had brought the claim as an age-as opposed to gender-claim. If I had alleged that he had not promoted me because of my age and he had argued that it was only a little about it my age but most it was because of my nose ring, I’d lose.

And the same analysis now officially applies to retaliation claims under Title VII. An employee will not be able to succeed in a retaliation claim by arguing that her supervisor harbors a bias against, for example, women. Instead, that bias must be the reason for the retaliatory act.

All that being said, here’s the real deal. This is another decision by the Supreme Court this term that affects the burden of persuasion in employment lawsuits. The Nassar decision, like Vance, is a true victory for employers in defending against meritless lawsuits brought current and former employees.

Readers may recall the case, Stewart v. CUS Nashville, LLC, which is one of the few opinions on the discoverability of a party’s social-media account. There were at least a couple of interesting issues in that decision but the most interesting part may be that the defendant is the entity that owns and operates Coyote Ugly Saloons. That’s right–the one from the movie, where hot bartenders dance on the bar.

The case was initiated by two of those (presumably hot) bartenders, Misty Blu Stewart and Samantha Thomas. They originally brought claims under the FLSA, alleging an unlawful tip-pooling policy. Those claims are quite interesting–so much so that I’m going to write a separate post about them later in the week. So stay tuned for the FLSA angle.

In the meantime, I have to write about the retaliation claims that the named plaintiffs added to their complaint.

The Allegations
First, Ms. Misty Blue Stewart (yes, really). Ms. Stewart worked at the Coyote Ugly saloon in Nashville until she was fired for giving away free drinks (a/k/a stealing), in December 2009.
Ms. Stewart claims that, one month after she initiated her FLSA claim in April 2011, the founder and president of the franchise, Liliana Lovell, wrote a post on her blog, which is hosted on the Coyote Ugly website about the lawsuit: “This particular case will end up pissing me off[,] cause it is coming from someone we terminated for theft.”

[Side Note: The rest of the post is pretty hilarious. You can read it on the Technology & Marketing Blog, where Venkat Balasubramani wrote about the case.]

Ms. Stewart had already found a new job, so she had no economic damages. Instead, she claimed that was “humiliated and embarrassed by the blog entry.”

Second, Ms. Stone. Stone worked at the saloon in Oklahoma City. Her retaliation claim was based on two comments made by the Director of Operations, Mr. Huckaby. Huckaby was in town for a party that was being held at the saloon and, like all good Directors of Operations tend to do, apparently found himself two sheets to the wind before the night was over.

While under the influence, Huckaby posted on his Facebook page, “Dear God, please don’t let me kill the girl that is suing me . . . that is all. . .” Stone, who was (of course), Facebook friends with Huckaby, saw the post about an hour later. The post was gone by the next day. Huckaby does not remember making the post or removing it.

The second comment occurred the next night. Ms. Stone testified that Huckaby learned that a customer had fallen down the stairs in the saloon and had threatened to sue. In response, Huckaby yelled out, “Why does everyone sue? I’m tired of all these bi***es taking their issues out on our company. They’re f***ing idiots.”

Ms. Stone testified that, although Huckaby was looking at the saloon manager, Amber Almond (yes, really, again), he sort of looked towards Ms. Stone as he yelled. Stone quit the next day and alleged constructive discharge. Huckaby does not remember making the statement.

The Decision

I’ll start with my conclusions because, heaven knows, I hate to bury the lead. I think the court got this one wrong. As in wrong. So, there, I said it. I think this was a bad decision. You can decide for yourself.

With respect to Misty Blu, the court found that there was sufficient evidence of retaliation to survive the employer’s motion for summary judgment. The employer argued that there was no evidence of an adverse employment action–a necessary component of a retaliation claim (i.e., an adverse action must be taken because of protected activity). The court disagreed and found that the comment in the founder’s blog post about being fired for theft was, if false, enough to constitute an adverse action.

Here’s the main problem I have with that decision–the employee had not been an employee for about 16 months at the time of the blog post. Not to mention that the employee was not referenced by name. And not to mention that there was no evidence that the employee hadn’t been terminated for theft. The court seems to confuse a statement that the employee committed theft with a statement that she was fired for theft. They’re not the same thing, are they?

Okay, moving on to Ms. Stewart. The court held that Stewart’s claim of constructive discharge also could survive summary judgment. The sum total of the evidence that Stewart presented in support of this claim was as follows, assuming everything in her favor:

1. A manager from Corporate made a snarky comment–without naming any names or even job titles–apparently while in the bag, which Stone viewed for all of two seconds and which was taken down a few hours later.

2. The same manager, who, let us not forget, was in town only for this party, made a comment about “bi***es” who sued the company upon learning that the company was being sued by someone other than the plaintiff.

Folks, if this constitutes a constructive discharge, well, color me confused. How the court concluded that these two incidents could lead to the type of intolerable conditions that are required to warrant a constructive discharge is beyond me. Maybe the standard is significantly different in the 6th Circuit. Because here, in the 3d Circuit, the standard requires far more dire conditions. Thankfully.

After all of that has been said, though, where are we? What are the lessons of today’s post? Well, try these on for size:

1. Please, please, please, discourage your supervisors from being Facebook friends with employees. It’s a bad idea. Particularly if your supervisors have a tendency to “drunk post” from the workplace.

2. Don’t let employees check Facebook while they’re on the clock. Yeah, yeah, I know. You disagree. But if Stewart hadn’t been permitted to check Facebook from her phone while on the clock, she wouldn’t have seen Huckaby’s post, which was gone a few hours later.

3. If you’re the owner, founder, senior executive, etc., don’t comment about confidential matters–including lawsuits and employee issues–on the company’s publicly available blog. (Interestingly, the only other time I’ve seen this was also with a female bar owner, who made a similar comment on her Facebook comment and was sued for retaliation, which leads me to the next and final lesson for today. . . )

4. Read this blog. Had Ms. Lovell read the post I mention above about how social-media rules also apply to supervisors, maybe she would have avoided the whole mess.

Stewart v. CUS Nashville, LLC, No. 3:11-cv-0342, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16035 (M.D. Tenn. Feb. 6, 2013).

Sexual harassment, retaliation, and constructive discharge. The trifecta of employment-discrimination claims. And all three were the subject of a recent decision from the 3d Circuit. The decision contains lots of interesting discussion points but I’ll limit myself to just one for the purposes of this post.

The plaintiff-employee contended that she resigned because her boss called her a “bitch” during a meeting. The court explained that, to establish a constructive discharge, the employee must show that “the employer knowingly permitted conditions of discrimination in employment so intolerable that a reasonable person subject to them would resign.” In determining whether the employee was forced to resign, the court looks to several factors, including whether she was threatened with discharge, encouraged to resign, demoted, subject to reduced pay, involuntarily transferred to a less desirable position, subject to a change in job responsibilities, or given poor performance evaluations.

So is being called a “bitch” at a meeting so bad that it could force an employee to quit?

You may be surprised to learn that the 3d Circuit did not answer this question in the negative. Nor did it find that this single incident was sufficient to constitute a constructive discharge.

Instead, it sent the question back to the trial court. The trial court had dismissed the claim based only on its dismissal of her sexual-harassment claim. Although the district court was correct when it determined that there cannot be a constructive discharge unless there was conduct over and above a hostile work environment. The district court held that, since there was no hostile work environment, there could not be a constructive-discharge claim. Although that theory is correct, the 3d Circuit explained, the district court had erroneously found that there was no hostile environment. Thus, the 3d Circuit directed the trial court to reevaluate the constructive-discharge claim after it had taken a second look at the hostile-environment claim.

Mandel v. M&Q Packaging Corp., No. 11-3193 (3d Cir. Jan. 14, 2013).

Many employers continued to face financial challenges in 2011. But business is booming for at least one group. The EEOC received a record number of complaints last year–almost 100,000 in all.

Almost half (40%) of the complaints alleged unlawful retaliation, making it the most “popular” type of claim. Race- and sex-discrimination claims ranked second and third highest.

The newest law on the EEOC’s enforcement task list is GINA, the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act. As expected, there were few GINA complaints filed–only 245 in 2011.

There could be any number of reasons for the increasing amount of discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t seem that this trend is likely to slow any time soon.

In an all too rare unanimous ruling (save for Justice Kagan, who recused herself), the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII extends to employees who are in the “zone of interest” with an employee who has filed a charge of discrimination. The facts and findings follow.

A female employee filed a charge of sex discrimination against her employer. A few weeks later, the employer fired the complainant’s fiancee, who had also been a company employee. The fiance then filed a retaliation charge with the EEOC and a subsequent lawsuit. 

Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, held that a reprisal against a third party such as the fiancee was covered retaliation under Title VII.  The Supreme Court further held that the fiancee was an “aggrieved person,” who had standing to sue under Title VII.  Justice Scalia pointed out that the text of the anti-retaliation provision is broader than the substantive provision and that any person who comes within the “zone of interest” that the statute seeks to protect can file suit. The Court leaves it to future cases to determine how far this “zone of interest” extends. The case is Thompson v. North American Stainless, No. 09-291.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on several important employment-law cases this term. Last week, we posted about the upcoming Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., in which the Court will address the requirements for an employee who claims retaliation based on the FLSA. And, on Monday, we posted about Staub v. Proctor Hospital, in which the Court will address the cat’s-paw theory in the USERRA context. 

The third and final post in this series discusses Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. In a 10-to-6 decision, the Sixth Circuit held that Title VII does not create a cause of action for third-party retaliation for persons who did not themselves engage in protected activity. In its decision, the Sixth Circuit joined the Third, Fifth, and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeal in holding that the authorized class of claimants is limited to persons who have personally engaged in a protected activity.

Thompson argued that he was fired because is fiancée, who worked for the same employer, filed an EEOC charge of discrimination. His employer argued that Thompson was discharged for performance-based reasons. Thompson filed his own charge of discrimination with the EEOC, and the administrative agency found reasonable cause that North American Stainless violated Title VII. The EEOC issued Thompson a right to sue notice, and Thompson filed a cause of action against his employer.

North American Stainless eventually moved for summary judgment on the ground that Thompson’s claim – that he was terminated as retaliation for his fiancée’s charge of discrimination – was insufficient as a matter of law under Title VII. The district court granted the employer’s motion, holding that Thompson failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted. Thompson appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court affirmed the district court’s opinion.

Thus, on December 7, 2010, the Court will hear argument on whether Title VII creates a cause of action for third-party retaliation for persons who did not themselves engage in protected activity.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on several important employment-law cases this term. Last week, we posted about the upcoming argument in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., in which the Court will address the requirements for an employee who claims retaliation based on the FLSA.

In this, the second part of this series, we look to an equally anticipated case, Staub v. Proctor HospitalStaub, like Kasten, is on appeal from the Seventh Circuit.  In Staub, the Supreme Court will examine   under what circumstances may an employer be held liable based on the unlawful intent of officials who caused or influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.

Staub sued his employer, alleging that he was discharged in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Staub prevailed after a jury trial. His employer appealed, and the Seventh Circuit reversed the trial decision.

At trial, Staub proceeded under the “cat’s paw” theory. That theory, derived from the 17th century French fable “The Monkey and the Cat,” is understood today to mean “when one is used by another to accomplish his purposes.” The cat’s paw theory is a way of proving discrimination when the actual decisionmaker is unbiased, but the discriminatory animus of a non-decisionmaker is imputed upon the decisionmaker, typically where the non-decisionmaker has singular influence on the decisionmaker.

Staub, an Army reservist, alleged that the reasons given for his discharge where mere pretext for discrimination based on his association with the military. USERRA prohibits adverse action based upon a prohibited criterion, in this case military status. Like other discrimination law, a plaintiff alleging a USERRA claim must show that the decisionmaker harbored animus toward him and relied upon that animus in choosing to take action against the plaintiff.

Staub won at trial, and his employer appealed. On appeal, the hospital argued, inter alia, that the trial court mishandled the cat’s paw theory. The Seventh Circuit agreed, finding that to succeed on a cat’s paw theory, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the decisionmaker blindly relied upon the non-decisionmaker’s influence. The appellate court also held that prior to admitting evidence of a non-decisionmaker’s animus, a trial court should determine whether a reasonable jury could find the presence of a singular influence over the decisionmaker.

This case is scheduled for oral argument on November 2, 2010. The Court will examine the circumstances which must be present for an employer to be held liable for the unlawful intent of officials who caused or influence, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened its new term earlier this week.  For the first time, three of the justices are women, creating an historic moment for the Court.  Employers anticipate several important decisions coming from the cases being heard this term, as well.  In this first part in a series, we’ll post about three of the most interesting employment-law cases scheduled for oral argument this Fall.

Next week, the Court is scheduled to hear argument in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. Kasten sued his employer, alleging a retaliation claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Kasten’s employer had issued Kasten several disciplinary warnings because of his failure to properly clock-in and out of the company’s timekeeping system. Kasten claimed he made verbal complaints to his supervisors about the legality of the location of the timekeeping clock. Kasten claimed that the clock’s location prevented employees from being paid for donning and doffing their required protective gear. Kasten was eventually terminated for failing to follow the company’s policy with respect to clocking in and out. Kasten sued his employer for retaliation under the FLSA, alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for his verbal complaints.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding that intra-company complaints are protected activities under the FLSA, but unwritten complaints, like Kasten’s verbal complaints to his supervisors, are not included in the act as a protected activity.

Although there is a split among the circuits on this issue, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision. The Seventh Circuit held that while the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision includes internal complaints as a protected activity, “to file” such a complaint means to file written complaint, not to merely submit a verbal complaint to one’s supervisor.

Kasten appealed the Seventh Circuit’s opinion after seeking rehearing, which was denied with a dissenting opinion. Oral argument on the question of whether an oral complaint is protected conduct under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision is scheduled for October 13, 2010.

Wage-and-hour lawsuits filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), are the hottest thing going for plaintiffs’ lawyers. And a worst-case scenario for an employer named as a defendant. FLSA cases can be very difficult to defend; the law imposes what is almost strict liability under most circumstances. So, when a court issues a decision in favor of an employer, it is worthy of notice. And when the U.S. Supreme Court grants certiorari of such a decision, it’s definitely worthy of notice. U.S.S.C. Building

In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., a Wisconsin factory worker filed suit alleging that he was unlawfully terminated in retaliation of his FLSA-protected activity (i.e., an FLSA-retaliation claim). The protected activity, he alleged, was his oral complaint about the placement of time clocks. Specifically, he alleged that he complained that employees were not being properly compensated for “donning and doffing time” because of the location of the time clocks.

The employer argued that the oral complaint was not sufficient—that only written complaints were protected by the FLSA. The trial court disagreed, finding that oral complaints were protected but the Seventh Circuit reversed and held that only a written complaint could trigger the protections of the FLSA. (Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Perform. Plastics Corp., No. 08-2820 (7th Cir. Oct. 15, 2009)) (pdf)

The law prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee “who has filed any complaint” against the employer. The Seventh Circuit concluded that an oral complaint cannot be “filed.” The conclusion seems perfectly logical, based on the plain language of the statute.

But, on the other hand, other employment laws do extend retaliation protection to oral complaints. For example, under Title VII, an employee is protected from unlawful retaliation for making an oral complaint about discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

The Supreme Court’s decision could redirect the course of FLSA litigation, either expanding the types of suits commonly brought to include retaliation claims—or by preventing retaliation claims from becoming the next-big-thing in employment-law litigation.

Scott Holt, Adria Martinelli, and I will be sure to cover this development in our panel discussion, Wage and Hour Update, at the Annual Employment Law Seminar on April 28, 2010. We hope to see you there!

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