Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ohio Supreme Court holds that an employer's lawsuit against an employee who has engaged in protected activity is not per se retaliation

This morning, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a significant retaliation decision, Greer-Burger v. Temesi, which holds that "an employer is not barred from filing a well-grounded, objectively based action against an employee who has engaged in protected activity." In so ruling, the Court stated that it is balancing "the statutory right of an employee to seek redress for claims of discrimination without retaliation against the constitutional right of an employer to petition courts for redress."

The facts of the case are as follows. In 1998, Tammy Greer-Burger filed a sexual harassment suit against Lazlow Temesi. The case proceeded to trial, at which Temesi prevailed. Thereafter, Temesi filed suit against Greer-Burger seeking to recover the $42,334 in attorneys fees and costs he had incurred defending against the harassment suit, plus compensatory and punitive damages. In response to Tamesi's lawsuit, Greer-Burger filed a charge of discrimination with the OCRC, claiming that Temesi's lawsuit was retaliation for her protected conduct, the prior sexual harassment suit. Based solely on the fact that Temesi had filed suit, the OCRC found that Tamesi's lawsuit was prohibited retaliatory conduct, and ordered Temesi to immediately cease and desist from pursuing his lawsuit and to pay Greer-Burger the $16,000 she claimed to have expended in defending against it. The common please court and appellate court both affirmed the OCRC's decision.

In reversing the lower courts, the Supreme Court started and ended its analysis with the First Amendment's fundamental right to petition and seek redress in the courts. Despite the fundamental nature of that right, the Court recognized that the right to access courts is not absolute. The First Amendment does not protect "sham" litigation, that is, an objectively baseless lawsuit such that no reasonable litigant could expect success on the merits. To find that the mere act of filing a lawsuit is per se retaliatory, in the words of the Supreme Court, would "undermine the right to petition for redress by giving an administrative agency the power to punish a reasonably based suit filed in court whenever it concludes ... that the complainant had one motive rather than another.... This danger is further highlighted when the only evidence of the complainant's retaliatory motive is the simple act of filing a lawsuit." (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Because of the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis used in retaliation cases, the Court placed the burden on the employer to demonstrate, as its legitimate non-retaliatory reason, that an alleged retaliatory lawsuit is not objectively baseless:

Instead, we find it more prudent to permit an employer the opportunity to demonstrate that the suit is not objectively baseless. In determining whether the employer’s action has an objective basis, the OCRC administrative law judge should review the employer's lawsuit pursuant to the standard for rendering summary judgment.... Thus, an employer needs to show his lawsuit raises genuine issues of material fact. If the employer satisfies this standard, the suit does not fall under the definition of sham litigation. The suit, therefore, shall proceed in court while the proceedings before the OCRC shall be stayed. The procedure outlined above falls within the jurisdiction of the OCRC as provided for in R.C. 4112.04 and promotes judicial economy because the employer's lawsuit will not have to be fully litigated in the trial court before the OCRC can make its determination as to the reasonableness of the suit. In this way, the OCRC essentially shall vet the action to ensure it is not sham litigation. (internal quotations and citations omitted)

The majority opinion concluded by recognizing the stigma of being falsely accused as a discriminator, and the importance of being able to seek legal redress to remedy that misclassification:

An employee's right to pursue a discrimination claim without fear of reprisal is a laudable goal entitled to considerable weight. The OCRC's position in this case, however, has the potential to give employees a carte blanche right to file malicious, defamatory, and otherwise false claims. As the concurring opinion of the appellate court astutely noted, the per se standard advocated by the OCRC does not advance the goal of Chapter 4112 when it "permits a claimant to engage in any kind of slander or defamation, and possibly even perjury, without consequence," and then precludes "those falsely accused of being discriminators from seeking legal redress." Greer-Burger, 2006-Ohio-3690, ¶ 38 (Corrigan, J., concurring).

Just because employees do not have carte blanche right to file malicious, defamatory, or otherwise false claims, does not mean that employers should rush into court to clear their names. Instead, employers should be wary in using Greer-Burger v. Temesi as carte blanche for filing lawsuits against unsuccessful discrimination plaintiffs. As the concurring opinion correctly points out, "the majority's 'not objectively baseless' test sets a very low threshold...." Merely because this case gives companies the apparent right to file a claim does not mean ultimate success on that claim. Indeed, the decision whether to pursue a claim against an employee or ex-employee who has brought a discrimination claim must be carefully thought out, and not merely filed as a knee-jerk reaction to being sued.