Articles Posted in Retaliation

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The Eighth Circuit decided an employment discrimination case earlier this month brought by an employee of a railroad carrier. Apparently, the plaintiff in this case had a significant history of good work performance, but at some point he violated a serious safety rule. He agreed to a 30-day suspension and a period of probation. At some point during his probation, the plaintiff was viewed walking in the tracks, which is another serious safety violation.

fall-railroad-1433372-2-m.jpgThe supervisors who witnessed the above violation began an investigation. A hearing was held, and it was decided that the plaintiff would be terminated from his position. The plaintiff believes that his termination was based on the fact that he made two previous complaints and not because of the alleged rule violation. The lower court ruled in favor of the employer, and the Eighth Circuit agreed, finding that there was no unlawful retaliation and the plaintiff would have been discharged even without the rule violation.

What is Retaliation?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explains that employers cannot harass, terminate, or demote an employee or retaliate against him or her for filing a claim for discrimination, participating in a discrimination proceeding, or other similar activities. Generally, a retaliation suit is brought when an employer participates in an adverse action against a qualified employee because he or she engaged in a constitutionally protected activity.
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Recently, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal district court’s ruling dismissing an Ohio safety officer’s claims that he was forced to resign from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety in 2010 due to racial discrimination.

ready-to-roll-542939-m.jpgIn Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, Mark Laster, an African American man, had worked for the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety for more than 23 years. During his employment, he claimed that he was treated less favorably than other employees in similar situations. For example, Laster believed that he was subjected to greater scrutiny, that policies were selectively enforced against him, and that his employer stood back and permitted individual employees to discriminate against or harass Laster. Laster believed that at least part of his treatment was due to his race. After reporting many instances of harassment to his employers, he eventually filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims against his former employer.

The district court found in favor of the City of Kalamazoo and Laster appealed. The Sixth Circuit applied strict scrutiny to the circumstances of his case, which is required for racial discrimination cases involving government bodies. For a government body to pass strict scrutiny, it must be shown that it had a compelling government interest, that the law or policy was narrowly tailored to achieve that interest, and that the law or policy was the least restrictive means for achieving that interest. Strict scrutiny is used for race, national origin, or alienage situations, compared to intermediate scrutiny for gender and rational basis (the lowest scrutiny) for nearly everything else.
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Not long ago, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined in Deleon v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission that a job transfer could be considered an adverse employment action, even if it was to a position that the employee initially wanted.

industrial-park-1372192-m.jpgThe case involved a 53-year old man of Mexican descent, Robert Deleon, who had worked for the Kalamazoo County Road Commission for 28 years. In 1995, Deleon served as an Area Superintendent who supervised road maintenance activities, road crews, and road repairs. Although he received positive reviews for his work, Deleon also claimed to have experienced a pervasive atmosphere of racial insensitivity and hostility.

In 2008, a vacancy opened up for the Equipment and Facilities Superintendent position. The description stated that the work took place primarily in an office and in a garage where there would be exposure to loud noises and diesel fumes. Deleon applied for the position, viewing it as a good opportunity to advance in his career. Had he been offered the position, Deleon claimed that he would have requested a $10,000 increase in salary.
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In the recent case Stevens v. Saint Elizabeth Medical Center, Inc., the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that terminating an employee after discovering a consensual, but inappropriate, workplace relationship that has soured is not grounds for wrongful termination or hostile work environment.

gavel-4-1409594-m.jpgThe case involved a nurse, Caroline Stevens, who worked for Physician Associates, LLC and Patient First Physicians Group, the latter of which was later acquired by Saint Elizabeth Medical Center. Stevens served as a nurse and personal assistant for the Doctor. During many of the years they worked together, Stevens and the Doctor had a romantic relationship, until Stevens broke it off in 2009 when she learned that the Doctor had not divorced his wife.

Stevens later filed a complaint that her site supervisor, Gary Brown, was pressuring her to take a new position after the Doctor expressed a desire to reduce his patient load. She noted that no patients had been transferred to other doctors. Brown was aware that Stevens and the Doctor used to be in a relationship. Investigation into the complaint revealed that Stevens and the Doctor not only had an affair, but that they also had several sexual episodes on office grounds. As a result, their employer gave them both the option of resigning or being terminated. The Doctor resigned, while Stevens was terminated. Stevens then filed a lawsuit against the Doctor, Patient First Physicians Group, and Saint Elizabeth Medical Center, alleging sexual harassment under Title VII, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, wrongful termination (retaliation) and fraud. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and the district court ruled in their favor. Stevens then appealed to a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit to review the case.
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Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination against employees on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion, age, or disability is prohibited. That includes not just discrimination in hiring, firing, or every day workplace activities, but also retaliatory acts against employees who report workplace discrimination. Retaliation can include demoting the individual or terminating his or her employment. The question is what constitutes retaliation. Not long ago, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that one case of firing did not meet that threshold.

handshake-671413-m.jpgIn Benes v. AB Data, LTD, the employee, Michael Benes, had filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stating that the AB Data firm committed gender discrimination. The claim reached the mediation phase, where Benes first had a session with his employer before the two parties separated and used a go-between to relay each other’s offer. After learning of the employer’s offer, Benes went into the room where the employer’s representatives were gathered and exclaimed that they could “shove” their proposal and fire him, and he would take them to court. The employer responded by terminating Benes’s employment. Benes then filed a lawsuit under Title VII, claiming retaliation rather than gender discrimination.

A magistrate judge ruled in favor of AB Data on a motion for summary judgment, stating that Benes had been fired due to misconduct during the mediation rather than for retaliation. Retaliation is only prohibited in cases where “[a person] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.”
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As schools are letting out for the summer, some high school and college students will turn their attention to earning some cash during their break. Being new to the workplace, many students are unaware of the laws in place to protect them and others from workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. These laws protect workers who are employed by companies of a certain size, regardless of whether the job is full-time, part-time, or seasonal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) gives the following advice to young workers:

Don’t Discriminate: You should not treat your co-workers unfairly or harass them because of their race, skin color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy) religion, disability, age (age 40 or older) or genetic information. For example, you should not tell sexual or racial jokes at work or tease people because they are different from you.

Report Discrimination: You should tell your company about any unfair treatment or harassment. Find out if your company has a policy on discrimination that specifies who you should contact about these issues.

Request Workplace Changes: You have a responsibility to tell your company if you need a workplace change because of your religious beliefs or disability. Your request does not have to be in writing, but you must provide enough information so your company can determine how to help you.

In a case settled in 2012, an 18-year-old female said she was subjected to sexual harassment by a male cashier while working at a Dairy Queen. During the six months that she worked there, the harassment didn’t stop, even after she told her manager. She called the police, who came to investigate while she was working. The manager then fired her while the police were there. She filed a claim with the EEOC, and a complaint was filed alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. The parties settled the case, with the company agreeing to pay $17,500, to provide sexual harassment training to its managers and supervisors, to post a notice about the lawsuit, and to report any additional complaints to the EEOC.
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Everyone knows that sexual harassment is wrong and that it can lead to serious consequences if it occurs in the workplace. Some types of sexual harassment are very obvious, forcing oneself on another person, firing someone for refusing to have a sexual relationship, making continuous lewd comments or sexual requests. But some aspects of sexual harassment are a little less clear.

Touching someone else while at work can also be obvious sexual harassment, depending on where on the body the person is touched. As children, we are taught that places covered by our swimsuits should not be touched by others because they are private. This rule also applies to the workplace. But touching in other places can be considered sexual in nature as well.

Take for example the recent case in Oregon where a police captain touched several women on the upper leg. His chief stated the touching was not sexual in nature because the offender did not mean it to be, but several others begged to differ. A slap on the leg from one guy to another probably would not be considered sexual, but that is not what happened here. The captain touched several female subordinates on the upper thigh, and those who were touched said he either rubbed their leg or allowed his hand to linger.

First, it is not up to the person who is doing the touching to determine whether it was sexual or not. The person being touched is the one who determines if it made them feel uncomfortable or threatened. Second, because the person doing the touching was their supervising officer, the women probably felt more intimidated and unwilling to say anything about the behavior. Third, the upper thigh is a questionable area, unlike a shoulder or arm.
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Employers who face employment discrimination charges often come across as villainous and uncaring. But sometimes, employers that may have actually been trying to look out for an employee end up discriminating against them. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this still does not make the discrimination acceptable. The following three scenarios all resulted in workplace discrimination actions being filed against the employers, two under the Americans with Disabilities Act and one under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted in 1978, and was added to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under the section regarding sexual discrimination. This new section made it illegal to discriminate against women who were pregnant or had medical problems related to pregnancy or childbirth. On November 13, 2012, the EEOC issued a press release stating it had filed a lawsuit under this portion of the act on behalf of a pregnant woman who had been terminated. The hotel franchise owner said she was terminated because her job as a housekeeper required that she be around cleaning products, which was unsafe for her baby. Whether this was truly the reason, or if they terminated her in anticipation of her missing work once the baby was born, is irrelevant. A woman cannot be fired because she is pregnant.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to protect those with disabilities from being discriminated against in employment, housing, and public services. Title I of the act covers workplace disability discrimination. A case filed by the EEOC on December 4, 2012, involves an employee who had a prosthetic leg. She was assigned to a temporary job by a placement agency in Illinois. Her job was to inspect or package electronics for shipping. While she was working on her second day, she was told that she was being removed from the position because the employer was afraid someone would bump into her. The placement agency promised to find her something else where she could sit down and work. She was never contacted about another job, so she filed a complaint with the EEOC. After trying to negotiate a settlement, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against both the placement agency and the electronics company. In the press release, the EEOC states, “Firing employees because of baseless fears and stereotypes about their disabilities is illegal, and the EEOC will defend the victims of such unlawful conduct.”
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On November 26, 2012 the Supreme Court heard the case of Vance v Ball State, an Indiana workplace discrimination lawsuit. Their ruling on the case will likely affect not only plaintiff and defendants in the case, but also other current and future workplace harassment lawsuits.

Here is a little background on the case. Ms. Vance started at Ball State University in Indiana in the banquet and catering department in 1989. During her numerous years of employment, she was usually the only African-American employee. One of her supervisors did not seem to care for her. She allegedly threatened her physically, and at one point the plaintiff heard that the supervisor referred to her in a derogatory manner because of her race. She reported the behavior, but the only outcome was both women were required to undergo counseling. The worker contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the university. The lower court that heard the case threw it out because they did not think the alleged harasser was an actual supervisor of the plaintiff. She then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So the matter before the Supreme Court is deciding what constitutes a “supervisor.” The federal appeals courts seem divided on the issue, with some using a broader definition than others. The court that heard the case above took a very narrow approach to the meaning of the word. They ruled that because the alleged harasser did not have the power to hire or fire employees, she was not a supervisor. The EEOC and some other federal courts define a supervisor as someone who “has the authority to recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the employee or if the individual has the authority to direct the employee’s daily work activities.” The plaintiff in this case felt the harasser was her supervisor because she was not required to fill out time sheets like the rest of the employees.
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A whistleblower, in very simple terms, is someone who realizes something may be not quite right and decides to tell someone else about it. While kids who perform this same type of service are often called tattle-tales, adults should not be chastised or punished for doing the same. If an employer appears to be operating in a way that breaks a federal law, an employee should feel comfortable telling the appropriate people about it so the situation can be investigated, and remedied if necessary.

Most workers employed by the government and in the private sector are protected by whistleblower laws. Employees are covered by a provision of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989(WPA). Under these acts, an employee who believes something they witnessed was in violation of a federal law, was fraudulent, was wasteful of money or resources, or might cause harm to the general public has the right to report it to the person or group of their choice without fear of retaliation. If an employee has reported some type of federal misconduct and has been retaliated against, he can take legal action under WPA and seek restitution such as repayment of lost wages if he was wrongfully terminated and other compensatory damages. This law also states that federal officials who have retaliated against a whistleblower may be subject to suspension or dismissal.

Most privately employed workers are also protected if they report a situation that they think breaks a federal law. The United States Department of Labor (DOL) handles whistleblower claims brought by workers in the private sector. If the whistleblowers do not think the DOL has administered their case in a timely manner, the law allows them to then file a lawsuit and have a trial by jury.

On November 27, 2012, President Obama signed new legislation providing additional protection for federal employees. Called the Whistleblower Enhancement Act, it is meant to further encourage those already covered by WPA to continue reporting governmental abuse of power and funds and it also offers protection to some groups who were exempt under the previous acts. This new act changes the burden of proof, making it easier for a whistleblower to prove their case. The Office of Special Counsel, which handles whistleblower cases, will no longer be responsible for paying defendants’ attorneys’ fees if they lose the case. All airport baggage screeners are now covered by whistleblower laws as are those who work in intelligence for the government. Scientists working for the government who report alleged censorship of their work are also now protected.
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