Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why retaliation claims should keep you up at night

In early 2009, Aker Plant Services terminated the employment of Tommy Sharp as part of workforce reduction. When Sharp asked his supervisor why the company chose him, as opposed to his less experienced, less senior co-workers, the supervisor replied that the company decided to keep younger employees who could stay with the company longer. Sharp then sued for age discrimination.

While Sharp’s age discrimination lawsuit was pending, a staffing agency attempted to place him for a temporary position at Aker. The company, however, immediately rejected Sharp’s candidacy,  notifying the staffing agency, via email, as follows:

Yes, we do know Tom. He does acceptable work as a designer, but he violated a DuPont mandate on the use of electronic recording devices on company property when last employed here. There are combustible materials in the plant that can potentially be ignited by the use of cell phones, recorders, cameras, etc… [sic] DuPont maintains a zero-tolerance approach to safety violations on its property so, unfortunately, we will not be able to consider Mr. Sharp for this role.

Sharp then brought a second suit, this time for retaliation. The district court dismissed the retaliation claim, concluding that the 15-month gap between Sharp’s initial notification of an intent to sue for age discrimination and the email to the staffing agency severed any potential causal connection between the two events.

The 6th Circuit, however, in Sharp v. Aker Plant Services Group (6th Cir. 1/13/15) [pdf], disagreed:

Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to Sharp, one could reasonably infer that Aker declined to rehire Sharp in retaliation for his then-pending discrimination action. Yes, it was fifteen months later…. Aker terminated Sharp before he filed his age-discrimination lawsuit, and therefore could not retaliate against him in any manner until he returned seeking temporary employment a year and a half later. Evidence showing that an employer had no opportunity to retaliate sooner supports a finding of temporal proximity.

Retaliation are the most dangerous claims that employers face. This employer likely felt safe refusing Aker’s placement because of the 15-month gap. That time gap, however, was tempered by the fact that the company no longer employed Aker, and its next interaction with him was the claimed act of retaliation. When an employee engages in protected activity, you must treat that employee with added care, as any act that could dissuade an employee from engaging in protected activity could give rise to a retaliation claim.