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

 

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Major Areas of Protection Under Federal Anti-discrimination Laws

LAW OFFICE OF BRYAN A. CHAPMAN

Employment Discrimination Attorney

202 508-1499

bchapman@baclaw.com

www.baclaw.com

sexual harassment    sex discrimination

race discrimination    national origin discrimination

religious discrimination    age discrimination

disability discrimination    retaliation

  • Sex Discrimination
    Federal laws prohibit discrimination based on sex with respect to all terms and conditions of their employment, including but not limited to: hiring, compensation, promotion, treatment on the job, termination.
  • Race Discrimination
    Federal laws protect employees from being treated less favorably, receiving fewer job or promotional opportunities, termination and more—including allowing an employee to be subjected to severe or pervasive harassment—based on race.
  • National Origin Discrimination
    Federal laws protect employees from being treated less favorably, receiving fewer job or promotional opportunities, termination and more—including allowing an employee to be subjected to severe or pervasive harassment—based on national origin.
  • Disability Discrimination
    Federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in all employment practices. An employer may not discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of that employee’s disability, nor may the employer deny the employee a reasonable workplace accommodation that would allow the employee to perform his or her job.
  • Religious Discrimination
    Federal laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religion. This discrimination may come in the form of adverse employment actions, but may also include harassment based on an employee’s religion. Employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious practices and beliefs unless the employer can demonstrate that such an accommodation would cause them an “undue hardship.”
  • Age Discrimination
    Federal laws prohibit the mistreatment of workers age 40 and over because of their age. This includes all aspects of employment including hiring, promotions, training, salary, job assignments and termination. Workplace age discrimination also includes harassment based on age that creates a hostile or offensive work environment.
  • Retaliation
    Federal laws protect employees who oppose discriminatory conditions at work and face retaliation for their actions.  Unlawful retaliation can include refusal to hire, demotion, tranfer to undesirable job duties, or termination of the employee who has filed a charge of discrimination with the employer or with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or has participated in the investigation of discrimination.

Federal Laws

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – prohibits workplace discrimination based on an employee’s race, sex, national origin, or religion.

 

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – prohibits workplace discrimination based on an employee’s disability.

 

  • The Age Discrimination is Employment Act (ADEA) – prohibits workplace discrimination based on an employee’s age.

 

Legal Remedies

  • Back pay for lost wages
  • Front pay for future lost wages
  • Compensatory damages
  • Punitive damages
  • Litigation costs and attorney fees

 

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

bchapman@baclaw.com

202 508-1499

 

Cat’s Paw Theory: “Boss set me up!”

The Cat’s Paw theory that applies to some discrimination and retaliation cases.  If an employee’s supervisor, who is both biased and untruthful, convinces the employer to take an adverse action (i.e. termination, demotion, denial of promotion, suspension, etc.) against the employee, the employer could be found liable for discrimination or retaliation under the Cat’s Paw theory.  Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011)

In March 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S. Ct. 1186 (2011), defined an employer’s liability under the Cat’s Paw theory:

  1. a non-decision maker, who is the employee’s supervisor, is motivated by discriminatory (or retaliatory) intent;
  2. the biased non-decision maker performs an act intended to cause the employee to suffer an adverse employment action; and,
  3. the biased non-decision maker’s act is a proximate cause of the adverse action.

The term Cat’s Paw comes from a French fable.  A monkey and a cat are sitting in front of a fire.  Chestnuts are roasting in the fire and the monkey wants a chestnut.  So, the monkey convinces the cat to fetch a chestnut out of the fire.  The cat fetches a chestnut but burns his paw in the process.  Meanwhile, the monkey eats the chestnut.

An employer can be found liable for discrimination or retaliation, even if the decision maker is not biased.  Liability can be established if the decision maker relies on a non-decision maker who is biased and untruthful.

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

Heightened Scrutiny: Employers ensnare unsuspecting employees

 Heightened Scrutiny: Employers ensnare unsuspecting employees.

 Retaliation occurs when an employee complains about workplace discrimination and is then targeted for harsher treatment by their 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.

An employee may complain that retaliation occurred when the employer “papered” their personnel file with write-ups and negative evaluations after they complained about workplace discrimination.  In its defense, the employer may argue that retaliation did not occur because the write-ups and negative evaluations were based on the employee’s poor job performance or misconduct.

Even if the write-ups and negative evaluations were based on the employee’s poor job performance or misconduct, retaliation can still occur if the derogatory documentation was a result of “heightened scrutiny”.  Under heightened scrutiny, the employer observes the employee more closely than it otherwise would while waiting for opportunities to discipline the employee. Hamilton v. General Electric, 556 F.3d 428 (6th Cir. 2009) (We have held that when an “employer . . . waits for a legal, legitimate reason to fortuitously materialize, and then uses it to cover up his true, longstanding motivations for firing the employee,” the employer’s actions constitute “the very definition of pretext.”)

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

 

“Papering” an employee’s personnel file: Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde

“Papering” an employee’s personnel file: Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde

 Employers are advised to document the job performance of their employees. The documentation of job performance is particularly important when an employer is accusing an employee of poor job performance.  Write-ups and negative job performance evaluations can justify adverse actions, such as, denial of promotion, demotion, or termination.

However, unjustified write-ups and negative job performance evaluations may be evidence of discrimination and retaliation.  A careful examination of the personnel file portrays an employee who goes from being Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde: a good employee suddenly becomes a bad employee.  This can raise suspicion and expose an employer to liability.

“Papering” occurs when an employer deliberately packs an employee’s personnel file with unjustified write-ups and negative job performance evaluations in order to justify an adverse action.  For instance, an employer can “paper” an employee’s personnel file by the following methods:

  • An employer may hold the employee to a higher standard than “similarly situated employees”.
  • An employer may scrutinize an employee.
  • An employer may singled out the employee for criticism or disciplinary action.
  • An employer may create a hostile work environment that interferes with the employee’s ability to perform their job.
  • An employer may solicit criticism of the employee from their co-workers and supervisors.
  • An employer may incite the employee’s co-workers and supervisors against them.
  • An employer may deliberately give the employee false write-ups and negative job performance evaluations.

Employers can use “papering” to cover-up discrimination and retaliation. Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046 (8th Cir. 1997) (“…he received much lower performance evaluations than he had received before filing his employment discrimination charge…  There was also evidence that Nash Finch had ‘papered’ his personnel file with negative reports, including two written reprimands.”); Etefia v. East Baltimore Cmty. Corp., 2 F.Supp. 751 (D. Md. 1998) (the court determined that the issue of whether documentation of the employee’s job difficulties was part of a plan to terminate him based on discrimination precluded summary judgment.)

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

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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What is “materially adverse” when establishing a retaliation claim?

Three elements of a prima facie retaliation case.

The Supreme Court expanded the scope of retaliation in Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).  To establish a 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.

What does “materially adverse” mean?

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

Suspending supervisory responsibilities or significantly reducing responsibilities.

A suspension, demotion, or termination can be materially adverse.  However, taking away an employee’s supervisor duties or significantly reducing their responsibilities can also be materially adverse for the purpose of establishing a retaliation claim. Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 364 (D.C.Cir.2007) (“[W]ithdrawing an employee’s supervisory duties … constitutes an adverse employment action.” (quoting Stewart, 352 F.3d at 426) (internal quotation marks omitted)); id. at 365 (observing that “reassignment… with significantly diminished responsibilities” would constitute an adverse employment action); Kessler v. Westchester County Dep’t of Soc. Serv., 461 F.3d 199 (2d Cir. 2006); Davis v. City of Sioux City, 115 F.3d 1365 (8th .Cir. 1997)

Reprimand or negative job performance evaluation.

A reprimand or negative job performance evaluation can be materially adverse. Nye v. Roberts, No. 03-1683, (4th Cir. 2005) (unpublished) (In this case, however, the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find that, in the context of the Board’s system of progressive discipline, the reprimand and performance evaluation resulted in a material change in Nye’s employment status.); Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046 (8th Cir. 1997) (“…he received much lower performance evaluations than he had received before filing his employment discrimination charge…  There was also evidence that Nash Finch had ‘papered’ his personnel file with negative reports, including two written reprimands.”)

Pursuing false criminal charges.

Pursuing false criminal charges against an employee can be materially adverse. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“An employer can effectively retaliate against an employee…Berry v. Stevinson Chevrolet, 74 F. 3d 980, 984, 986 (CA10 1996) (finding actionable retaliation where employer filed false criminal charges against former employee who complained about discrimination).”; Berry v. Stevinson Chevrolet, 74 F.3d 980 (10th Cir. 1996) (“Other courts concluding that Title VII extends to former employees have held that the filing of charges can constitute the requisite adverse action.”); Beckham v. Grand Affair of NC, Inc., 671 F.Supp. 415 (W.D.N.C. 1987)

Creating or perpetuating a hostile work environment.

Retaliatory harassment can constitute an adverse employment action. Von Gunten v. Maryland, 243 F.3d 858, 865 (4th Cir. 2001); Noviello v. City of Boston, 398 F.3d 76 (1st Cir. 2005) (“The weight of authority supports the view that, under Title VII, the creation and perpetuation of a hostile work environment can comprise a retaliatory adverse employment action under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).  See, e.g., Von Gunten v. Maryland…”).

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

 

The Gazette: Jury awards $350,000 in compensatory damages

Teacher fired in Prince George’s school system wins lawsuit alleging retaliation

Jury awards $350,000 in compensatory damages

A former Largo High School English teacher was awarded $350,000 compensatory damages by U.S. District Court in a lawsuit against the Prince George’s County school system for retaliation.

According to court documents, Jon Everhart, who is white, attempted to file a race discrimination grievance with the county teacher’s union after the principal, who is black, allegedly used several racial epithets against Everhart in the presence of students, teachers, staff and parents.

The principal did not return multiple phone or email messages to request comment for this story.

Everhart’s suit alleges the principal promised to fire him in “payback” for black teachers fired by white principals.

PGCPS spokesman Max Pugh said neither the school system nor its attorney could comment on the case, due to further litigation pending in district court.

Everhart filed multiple complaints, but the school system did not respond to his accusations, said Bryan Chapman, Everhart’s attorney.

Following the complaints by Everhart and others in 2008, Everhart began receiving unsatisfactory performance reviews, according to Chapman, who said that Everhart had previously been named Largo’s 2005-2006 Teacher of the Year.

After two years of unsatisfactory performance reviews, his employment was terminated August 2010 and his teaching credentials revoked, according to documents filed with the court on behalf of Everhart.

In addition to the $350,000 in damages, Everhart, 65, will also be awarded back pay and retirement benefits, the exact amounts of which have yet to be determined, Chapman said

“This has been a huge relief for Mr. Everhart, because now he can get back to having a normal life,” Chapman said, adding that his client, who now lives in Westerville, Ohio, has been unemployed and has suffered health problems, such as high blood pressure, because of the alleged retaliation.

“Any human being harassed like that is going to get ill,” Chapman said.

The jury found in favor of the school system in Everhart’s claim of hostile work environment, but Chapman said he has filed for a retrial on that charge, adding that the judge did not give the jury mixed motive instructions, which would apply in cases of alleged racial harassment.

Washington Post: White teacher wins $350,000 in Prince George’s schools bia lawsuit.

August 8 at 4:33 PM 

A former Prince George’s County teacher won a $350,000 jury award after accusing the school system of discriminating against him because he is white.

Jon Everhart alleged in his lawsuit against the Prince George’s County school board that a black principal forced him out of his job because of his race.

“Justice was served,” Everhart said. “I do feel as though I have been vindicated.”

Everhart, 65, speaking by phone from Ohio after the verdict in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, said he faced years of racial harassment from the Largo High School principal, who he said repeatedly told staffers and students that she planned to fire him.

“She called me ‘poor white trash’ and ‘white b—-,’ ” Everhart said of the principal, Angelique Simpson-Marcus, who leads the 1,100-student school in Upper Marlboro. “Her behavior was so outlandish.”

Simpson-Marcus said in an interview that the allegations are baseless. She declined to comment on the reason for Everhart’s termination, but she said the complaints of ill treatment and retaliation were “unfounded.”

“I never said any of those things,” she said. “I don’t use that kind of language.”

Max Pugh, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County school system, said he could not comment on the case because the litigation is ongoing; the school system has 30 days to respond to the judge’s order and could file an appeal.

Everhart sued in 2010 after he was fired, and he was one of several Largo High School employees who made allegations of harassment. Some who filed lawsuits said they were mistreated for vocally supporting Everhart.

Bryan Chapman, Everhart’s attorney, argued that the Board of Education violated the Civil Rights Act, which says organizations receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. There is no cap in potential damages in such cases; Everhart originally sought $5 million.

The jury sided with Everhart on the discrimination claim, but it found in favor of the county school board on Everhart’s claim of a hostile work environment.

Everhart’s award is for compensatory damages. He said he has suffered from high blood pressure and heart problems as a result of his treatment at Largo.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte will later decide how much Everhart should receive in back pay and benefits. The school system has 30 days to show why Everhart should not receive retirement and health benefits and why his teaching certificate, which was revoked when he was fired, should not be restored.

Everhart, a former Baltimore city teacher, was hired by Prince George’s in 2003 and was assigned to teach English at Largo. At that time, Simpson-Marcus was a physical education teacher.

Everhart said Simpson-Marcus told students that the “only reason a white teacher teaches in P. G. County is that they can’t get a job elsewhere.” He filed a union grievance against her and said she told him that if she ever became principal, he would be the first person she would fire.

Chapman said that when Simpson-Marcus returned to Largo as its principal, Everhart, who was once named the school’s Teacher of the Year and who received stellar evaluations, started to receive unsatisfactory performance evaluations.

Everhart said he was removed from teaching honors English to juniors and seniors — classes in which he was popular — and was placed in a freshman class, where Simpson-Marcus allegedly told students that Everhart was going to lose his job.

Chapman said that Everhart filed complaints but that they were often ignored. He tried to get transferred to another high school, but the effort was blocked, Chapman said. There was never a school system investigation of the matter, Chapman and Everhart said.

“I just think it was a disgrace, and I think that’s what the jury saw, too,” Chapman said.

 

 

 

The Sentinel: Board of Education loses

Board of Education loses

  • 30 Jul 2014
  • Written by  Kelsey Sutton

 

GREENBELT — A federal court ordered the Prince George’s County Board of Education to pay a former Largo High School teacher $350,000 in damages for firing the teacher as retaliation for a discrimination complaint, but the teacher’s attorney said the case may not be over yet.

“I am delighted,” said Bryan Chapman, attorney for plaintiff Jon Everhart, a former Largo High School literature teacher. “[The decision] gave Jon Everhart some relief after four years.”

Everhart, a former teacher of the year, filed a lawsuit after the school system fired him in Aug. 2010.

Everhart claims Largo High School Principal Angelique Simpson-Marcus made racially-fueled discriminatory remarks toward him, and when he filed complaints with the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association and the Board of Education, the school system fired him in retaliation.

Everhart claims he first became aware of discriminatory remarks from Simpson-Marcus in 2003, when a student notified him. The student told Everhart that Simpson-Marcus, a gym teacher at the time, told her class, “The only reason a white man teaches in P.G. County is that they can’t get a job elsewhere.”

After he filed his grievance, Everhart claims Simpson-Marcus told him if she became principal he would be the first person she would fire. After Simpson-Marcus became principal in 2007, Everhart claims she called him “poor white trash” and other derogatory terms in front of students, parents, teachers and staff. Everhart also claims he received negative evaluations after Simpson-Marcus became principal.

The federal jury found Everhart’s firing was illegal under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from being fired from federally funded schools as retaliation for issuing complaints of racial discrimination.

The jury also ruled the Board of Education needs to pay for health and retirement benefits, as well as lost pay, which Chapman claims is in excess of $200,000, putting his total reward at more than $500,000.

The jury, however, contrary to Everhart’s claims, found he did not experience a hostile work environment during his time at Largo High School.

Chapman said he and Everhart may seek to further pursue the hostile work environment charge.

“It’s not over,” Chapman said. “There are going to be more fireworks.”

Max Pugh, a spokesman for Prince George’s County Public Schools , said he could not comment on ongoing legal matters.

Everhart said when he brought the issue of his alleged harassment to the attention of the school board they did nothing to address his complaints. Everhart then contended he was further harassed, mistreated and ultimately fired because of the complaints he filed.

But the Board’s attorney argued there was no harassment, just a disgruntled former teacher trying to make excuses for his poor classroom performance.  “This case is about an under-performing teacher who refused to take responsibility for his failures,” defense attorney Robert Baror said in closing arguments.  Baror defended Simpson-Marcus, saying she was simply doing her job and holding Everhart accountable for failing to maintain adequate student performance in his classroom.

Chapman contended low teacher evaluations were a direct result of the harassment Everhart faced and the complaints he began filing.

Everhart took the stand himself, with hundreds of documented letters he sent to his union representative regarding the harassment.  “The Board of Education ignored the harassment and the complaints in the personnel file increased,” Chapman said during closing arguments. “They’re blaming the victim.”

Throughout the trial, the case also relied on testimony from one of Everhart’s former students, former assistant principals and other school employees.

The Board of Education has 30 days to respond to the jury’s decision.

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