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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Failure to hire "because of litigation" may constitute retaliation

Another day, another retaliation case out of the 6th Circuit. In Cline v. BWXT Y-12, LLC, the company declined to hire Cline, a former employee, for an open position because the company was "in litigation with Mr. Cline and that he may not be the best person ... because of the litigation factor." That litigation involved a claim of age discrimination. The decision makers testified that while they knew of the litigation, they did not know that it involved allegations of age discrimination. The district court threw out the retaliation claim on summary judgment, finding that because the decision makers did not have "any knowledge of the substance of Cline's present suit," they could not have known that he had engaged in protected activity.

The appellate court disagreed, and found that because the decision makers "knew that Cline was involved in litigation with the company ... the evidence permits the inference that the decision makers were unwilling to hire someone in litigation with the company." That inference "creates a triable issue of fact over whether the decision makers knew of Cline's protected activity."

"Wait a second," you might say, "There can be all kinds of litigation Cline could have been involved in. Just because he sued the company doesn't mean that he was engaged in statutorily protected activity. And, even if he was, can't a company have a neutral policy against hiring anyone who has sued the company, regardless of the cause." The Court hears your protests:

Something more is required, the company says, because Cline’s evidence still does not show that the decision makers knew that the litigation involved an age-discrimination claim.... In one sense the company has a point. Cline’s evidence permits the inference that Mack and Zava would not hire someone—anyone—“in litigation” with the company, and that view might suggest unbiased neutrality. It thus might have made no difference to Mack and Zava whether the litigation involved age discrimination if they preferred not to hire anyone in litigation with the company without regard to the subject matter of the lawsuit—whether it was a tort action, a contract dispute or a civil rights complaint. But such an across-the-board explanation—that any litigation with the company precludes any individual from being hired (or for that matter being retained as a current employee)—would necessarily sweep up protected civil rights claims and non-protected claims. And if such an explanation suffices for one hiring decision, why couldn’t an employer adopt a company-wide policy against hiring or retaining anyone in litigation with the company? As long as the policy were consistently followed, the employer would rarely have reason to obtain knowledge about the substance of the litigation, and at any rate it could always fairly say that it was the ruthlessly neutral policy, not the protected activity, that caused the adverse action.

Thus, to prove his retaliation claim, Cline will have to prove two facts:

  1. That the company knew about the content of his claim; and
  2. That the company did not have a policy against hiring (or retaining) individuals with litigation against the company.

This case poses the age-old question, "What does 'because of' mean in an employment lawsuit?" The answer, as with most things, is, "It depends." Cline presents a rational and common sense understanding that not all employment decisions that look retaliatory are retaliatory. I would never counsel someone to provide "engaged in litigation" as a reason for termination, because of the negative inferences that one can draw. But, if the decision maker does not know of the reason for the litigation, and the company can prove that it has a policy (written or unwritten) against hiring (or for firing) anyone who is in litigation against it, then the company genuinely has not engaged in retaliation.