If an employee files a charge of charge of discrimination, and then openly discusses with others his strong desire to sue the company for discrimination, do those discussions constitute "protected activity" under the anti-retaliation provisions of the employment discrimination statutes. According to the 6th Circuit's ruling late last week in Fox v. Eagle Distributing Co., the answer is no.
After being passed over for a promotion, James Fox filed a charge of discrimination. After filing that charge, he repeatedly told co-workers and customers that the company was out to get him, and that he was going to sue the company for $10 million. Other than his charge of discrimination, however, he never told anyone that he believed he was the victim of age discrimination. When the company found out that he had been complaining to customers, it fired him for a "poor attitude" which impeded the company's ability to develop good customer relations. Fox then claimed that he was being retaliated against. The only protected conduct he alleged was his boasts that the company was out to get him and that he was going to sue the company.
The 6th Circuit affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Fox's retaliation claim. It reasoned that Fox had not engaged in protected activity because he had never complained that he had been discriminated against. According to the 6th Circuit, to qualify as protected activity, the opposition must be tied to a violation of a specific statute, and not merely generalized grievances.
We conclude that Fox’s discussion with Poplin is not protected activity under the ADEA and, therefore, Fox has failed to establish a prima facie claim of retaliation. Specifically, we hold that Fox’s statements to Poplin are not protected because they did not amount to opposition to an unlawful employment practice by Eagle. In order to receive protection under the ADEA, a plaintiff’s expression of opposition must concern a violation of the ADEA.... Here, the record does not contain any evidence that Fox specifically alleged discriminatory employment practices in his discussion with Poplin. In her affidavit, Poplin states that Fox mentioned suing Eagle and "that he had made comments about not getting promoted to a pre-sell position.... Although Fox’s lawsuit against Eagle alleged age discrimination, Poplin did not state – either in her affidavit or as recounted in the personnel memo – that Fox alleged that he was denied the promotion due to age discrimination or that Eagle engaged in any unlawful employment practices."
In other words, a vague charge that management is out to get an employee, and discussions of a pending lawsuit without specific reference to alleged discrimination are insufficient to constitute opposition of an unlawful employment practice and does not merit protection.
Typically, companies should treat employees who have alleged discrimination with kid gloves. The lesson to take away from this case is that no employee is protected from termination merely because he or she files a charge of discrimination or a lawsuit. Eagle got off because Fox did not complain in the right way, These issues, however, operate in very gray areas, and companies would be wise to move cautiously if deciding whether to fire an employee like James Fox - a disgruntled employee with a history of crying discrimination.