Employees may prevail against employers who use false accusations to hide severe retaliatory behavior.

Victims of workplace discrimination and/or harassment are encouraged to file a complaint with their employer or a government entity, such as, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Filing a complaint is generally a prerequisite to pursuing a claim in state or federal courts.

However, filing a discrimination complaint can trigger a retaliatory response from the employer.  In general, retaliation is an impulsive reaction by an employer to a discrimination/harassment complaint filed by an employee.  The employer’s reaction to the employee’s complaint results in harsher treatment, which can include termination.  Like discrimination, retaliation is illegal.  Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046 (8th Cir. 1997) (“There was also evidence that Nash Finch had ‘papered’ his personnel file with negative reports…”); Gowski v. Peake, 682 F.3d 1299 (11th Cir. 2012) (The evidence here showed that the administration intended to retaliate against Gowski and Zachariah because of their EEO activity and then created a hostile environment by spreading rumors about the doctors, damaging their reputations, and disciplining them.)

While retaliation is generally impulsive, some employers are more calculating in the way they retaliation against employees. These employers use pretext (false justification) to hide their true retaliatory motive.

Like a spider and its web, these employers wait for the employee to make a minor mistake and then they use the employee’s minor mistake to falsely justify a severe retaliatory response, such as, a termination.  Hamilton v. General Electric Co., 556 F.3d 428, 435 (6th Cir. 2009) (“…Hamilton alleges that the bosses heightened their scrutiny of him after he filed his EEOC complaint. See Jones v. Potter, 488 F.3d 397, 408 (6th Cir. 2007) (noting that an employer cannot conceal an unlawful discharge by closely observing an employee and waiting for an ostensibly legal basis for discharge to emerge).”); EEOC v. Boeing Co., 577 F. 3d 1044, 1050-3 (9th Cir. 2009) (“…after Boeing substantiated a sexual harassment claim Wrede had filed, she received lower RIF scores than most engineers in her skill code and was subsequently terminated.[1] These scores were lower than the scores she had received in two previous RIF evaluations in April and July of 2002.”)

In court, most employers use pretext as a standard defense against an employee’s claim of retaliation.  An employee with a record of satisfactory job performance will suddenly be accused, by their employer, of poor job performance or serious misconduct.  Often, this defense ploy lacks credibility on its face.

Courts recognize that employers use pretext to hide their true retaliatory motive.  With this in mind, employees may prevail in court by proving that their employer’s justification is false and retaliatory.  An employee’s record of satisfactory job performance or good conduct often speaks for itself.  (“[A] plaintiff’s prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find that the employer’s asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the employer unlawfully discriminated.”).  Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143 (2000); Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 601 F.3d 289, 295 (4th Cir. 2010); Mereish v. Walker, 359 F.3d 330, 336 (4th Cir. 2004)

 

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

bchapman@baclaw.com

202 508-1499

 

Employers con sexual harassment victims by means of a “see no evil, hear no evil” policy.

Particularly, in the case of co-worker sexual harassment, an employer can only be found liable for sexual harassment if management is aware that sexual harassment is occurring in the workplace.  As a result, some employers have adopted a “see no evil, hear no evil” strategy.

Management may be fully aware that sexual harassment is occurring, but deliberately pretend that is is not occurring in order to avoid liability.  Management may even discourage victims of sexual harassment from complaining.  Spicer v. Com. of Va., Dept. of Corrections, 66 F. 3d 705, 710 (4th Cir. 1995) (We reiterated this requirement in Swentek, holding that an employer is liable only “where it had `actual or constructive knowledge of the existence of a sexually hostile work environment and took no prompt and adequate remedial action.'” 830 F.2d at 558 (quoting Katz) (emphasis added).  Knowledge of work place misconduct may be imputed to an employer by circumstantial evidence if the conduct is shown to be sufficiently pervasive or repetitive so that a reasonable employer, intent on complying with Title VII, would be aware of the conduct.); Jackson v. Quanex Corp., 191 F. 3d 647, 664 (6th Cir. 1999)

“An employer cannot avoid Title VII liability for coworker harassment by adopting a “see no evil, hear no evil” strategy.” Ocheltree v. Scollon Productions, Inc., 335 F. 3d 325, 334 (4th Cir. 2003)  “Once the employer has notice, then it must respond with remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment.” EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 521 F.3d 306, 319 (4th Cir. 2008)

Therefore, victims of workplace sexual harassment should document each incident of harassment in real time.  Documentation can be evidence of sexual harassment if a lawsuit is filed.  Victims of workplace sexual harassment should seek corroboration from other victims of sexual harassment; there is strength in numbers.  Finally, victims of workplace sexual harassment must complaint to management and/or government entities, such as, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

bchapman@baclaw.com

202 508-1499

Retaliation claims on the rise

In 2013, retaliation claims made up 41 percent of the discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Retaliation claims are on the rise while other types of discrimination claims have leveled off or even dropped.

Retaliation occurs when an employee complains about workplace discrimination and is then targeted for harsher treatment by the employer. Harsher treatment includes, but are not limited to, refusal to hire, demotion, refusal to promote, harassment, negative performance evaluations, reprimands, termination or a change in hours.  The most frequent form of retaliation is disciplinary action or termination.

For example, an employee has performed at a satisfactory level or higher for quite some time.  The employee complains to the employer about workplace discrimination, for instance, sexual harassment.  Shortly thereafter, the employee is written-up, given unsatisfactory job performance evaluations, or terminated.

A retaliation claim is a separate claim from the underlying discrimination claim.  In a lawsuit, a plaintiff can win a retaliation claim while losing the underlying discrimination claim.  In general, retaliation claims are easier to prove than discrimination claims.

The Supreme Court expanded the scope of retaliation in Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“a plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have ‘dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’”)

To establish a prima facie claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must show:

  1. they engaged in protected activity;
  2. the defendant took action that would be “materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant”; and,
  3. there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the asserted adverse action.

Materially adverse means harmful enough to “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  Burlington, 548 U.S. 68.

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

 

Published in: on October 2, 2014 at 6:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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