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.
In 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.”
The Seventh Circuit sided with the magistrate judge, stating that judgment against Benes was proper because Benes did not honor the purpose of EEOC mediations. Charges of serious discrimination would be harder to vindicate if those involved in mediation could just ignore the structure laid out by the mediator. That was why misconduct during a mediation session should have consequences. Furthermore, Title VII did not forbid all employer responses to filing charges of discrimination — just employer responses that would dissuade a reasonable worker from filing charges of discrimination. The Seventh Circuit did not think that Benes’s termination rose to that standard. In a previous case, the Seventh Circuit had determined that conduct that, outside the investigation, would justify termination was not illegal under Title VII.
The case is a cautionary tale for Indiana employment discrimination attorneys. No matter how justified their clients’ claims, their clients could still be terminated from their employment if they fail to follow the protocols laid out by the EEOC mediator, or otherwise fail to be reasonably behaved and polite during the process. Workplace discrimination can understandably raise people’s emotions, but they still can only get what they want by following proper procedures.
Miller & Falkner is a plaintiffs law firm serving residents of Kentucky and Indiana. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, the firm provides representation in the areas of personal injury and employment law. Contact us today for a free consultation.