Alvarez v. Royal Atlantic Developers, Inc. (11th Cir. 7/2/10) [pdf] asks this question: Can an employee who engages in protected activity pursue a retaliation claim if an employee slated for termination is fired sooner rather than later because of an exercise of protected activity? The court recognized that in certain circumstances, a legitimate and reasonable fear that an irate employee will use his or her position within the company to sabotage operations will justify termination, even if the company finds about the risk from the employee’s exercise of protected activity (such as a written complaint letter).
When Eliuth Alvarez got wind of her boss’s plans to replace her as the company’s controller, she wrote a letter of protest, complaining, among other things, about what she perceived to be discrimination against her based on her national origin. The company accelerated Alvarez’s termination because of the letter. It argued that it had to get rid of Alvarez when it did because the it feared that she might vindictively use her position as controller, with access to company computers and bank accounts, to sabotage operations.
The court recognized that in certain circumstances, such a fear is justified:
Suppose an employee with reason to believe that she has been discriminated against works in the control room of a nuclear power plant, and in her letter complaining of discrimination says that: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Or suppose she is a pilot and makes that statement in her letter of complaint. Or suppose she was not in a position to endanger the public, but her letter complaining of discrimination makes it clear that she is psychologically unstable and a danger to those who work around her. Discrimination laws do not require that their goals be pursued at the cost of jeopardizing innocent life or that employers tolerate a serious risk that employees in sensitive positions will sabotage the company’s operations. We are confident that if an employer removes an employee because of a reasonable, fact-based fear of sabotage or violence, the anti-retaliation provisions of our laws will not punish that employer for doing so.
In the specific circumstances of this case, however, the court was not persuaded that fear of sabotage motivated the employer’s decision to move up the termination:
Unless Royal Atlantic convinces a jury that it had a reasonable basis for fearing that unless it fired her immediately Alvarez would sabotage its operations or harm others, and there was no less drastic means of reliably preventing that other than firing her, Alvarez will be entitled to damages for the length of time she would have remained on the job if she had not sent the October 3, 2006 letter complaining of discrimination.
A few questions to consider if you a planning on using this defense in your next retaliation case:
Did the employee’s position offer the opportunity to do real harm to the company?
Did the employee make real threats against the company or anyone else, or provide a legitimate and reasonable basis to infer that he or she would disrupt operations?
Did the company have no options other than termination (such as reassigning duties until a replacement could be hired) to protect itself from the feared sabotage?
Did the employee’s continued employment pose a physical danger to other employees or the public?
The more of these questions to which you can answer yes, the better chance you will have to prevail on this defense.