Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Examining the low standard for adverse actions in retaliation claims

Mark Laster worked as a Public Safety Officer/Emergency Officer for the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety for more than 23 years. After complaining to his superiors that the department was treating him differently because of his race, he alleged that he was denied training opportunities and privileges, singled out for violating at least two department policies that were selectively enforced against him, and disciplined more harshly than his peers for identical violations. 

The district court, however, dismissed Laster’s Title VII retaliation claim, concluding that none of the challenged actions were materially adverse sufficient to support a claim of retaliation. 

The 6th Circuit disagreed. Laster v. City of Kalamazoo (3/13/14) hi-lights the low standard for establishing an “adverse action” to support a retaliation claim:
Plaintiff’s burden of establishing a materially adverse employment action is “less onerous in the retaliation context than in the anti-discrimination context.” … “[A] plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” … “This more liberal definition permits actions not materially adverse for purposes of an anti-discrimination claim to qualify as such in the retaliation context.”
Thus, the 6th Circuit concluded that the trial court had erred by dismissing Laster’s retaliation claim:
Facing heightened scrutiny, receiving frequent reprimands for breaking selectively enforced policies, being disciplined more harshly than similarly situated peers, and forced to attend a pre-determination hearing based on unfounded allegations of wrongdoing might well have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. There is a genuine issue of fact regarding whether or not Plaintiff was subject to materially adverse action, and whether Plaintiff’s protected activity was the cause of such action.
By way of contrast, the 6th Circuit also concluded that the same set of facts could not legally support Laster’s constructive discharge claim under Title VII, because of the higher “adverse action” standard under a Title VII disparate treatment claim.

What does all this legal jargon mean from a practical standpoint? It means that when an employee complains about discrimination, or otherwise engages in protected conduct, you must treat that employee with kid gloves. Any action you take against that employee, which one could view as reasonably dissuading any employees from engaging in other protected conduct, will likely be “adverse” under Title VII’s anti-retaliation protections.

Employees who complain aren’t bulletproof, and you can still discipline or terminate a worthy employee, even on the heals of complaint about discrimination or other protected conduct. You must, however, tread very carefully, and make sure that all your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, because even the slightest misstep could ring the retaliation bell.