Thursday, April 23, 2015

“Stop harassing me!” = protected conduct to support retaliation claim, says 6th Circuit

What happens when the alleged perpetrator of sexual or other unlawful harassment is also the person to whom the victim lodges a complaint of harassment? If the alleged perpetrator later fires (or causes the firing of) the victim, has the victim engaged in protected conduct (opposition of the harassment) to support a retaliation claim? According to the 6th Circuit, in EEOC v. New Breed Logistics (4/22/15) [pdf], the answer is yes.

The jury concluded that Calhoun, a supervisor, sexually harassed three women (Hines, Pearson, and Pete), retaliated against them after they objected, and further retaliated against a male employee (Partee) “who verbally opposed Calhoun’s sexual harassment and supported the women’s complaints.” The evidence at trial was that Calhoun laughed and responded “that he wasn’t going to get in trouble, that he ran th[e] area, [and that] anybody who went to [HR] on him would be fired.” Calhoun then fired each of the four employees, claiming performance and attendance issues. 

As the threshold issue, the 6th Circuit had to determine whether complaints or objections made to the accused harasser constitute protected activity to support a retaliation claim. The 6th Circuit had little difficulty concluding that these four employees had engaged in protected activity:

We conclude that a demand that a supervisor cease his/her harassing conduct constitutes protected activity covered by Title VII. Sexual harassment is without question an “unlawful employment practice.” If an employee demands that his/her supervisor stop engaging in this unlawful practice—i.e., resists or confronts the supervisor’s unlawful harassment—the opposition clause’s broad language confers protection to this conduct. Importantly, the language of the opposition clause does not specify to whom protected activity must be directed…. Here, at the very least, all four complainants requested that Calhoun stop his sexually harassing behavior before their terminations. Consistent with our holding today, these complaints constitute protected activity.

While I agree that this holding makes sense, consider the awful position in which it could place employers who are lax with their termination decisions. An employer is vicariously liable for the actions of a supervisor or manager (e.g., harassment or retaliation). Thus, an employer will be liable for the rogue actions of a harasser trying to protect his or her turf from an objecting employee.

The solution? More diligence and scrutiny of termination decisions by HR departments and senior management. One cannot merely rubber stamp a manager’s or supervisor’s decision to terminate. If that individual harbors a discriminatory animus, we know that the cat’s paw will nab you. Now, we also know, per New Breed Logistics, that retaliation liability has the same potential issues when an alleged harasser is involved.

Bottom line: Do not rubber stamp termination decisions. Fact-check and confirm before allowing the company to pull the trigger.