January 26, 2011

Supreme Court: door now wide open for third-party retaliation claims under Title VII

Posted in Discrimination, Reprisal, Retaliation, Third Party Claims, Third Party Claims tagged , , , , , , at 9:23 am by Tom Jacobson

In a unanimous decision filed January 24, 2011 the United States Supreme Court has ruled that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employees may sue for retaliation, even if they themselves never engaged in any protected activity.

Retaliation has always been unlawful under Title VII, but until now such claims have been limited to those cases where employers retaliate against employees who engage in some type of protected activity. For example, if an employer fires an employee because that employee filed a sexual harassment complaint against the company, the employee would have a legitimate claim for retaliation under Title VII.  Now, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, if that same employer leaves the complaining party alone but takes action against a different employee, the other employee now has a legitimate claim for retaliation under Title VII.

The Supreme’s decision came in the case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, http://bit.ly/hafLvd.  The basic facts of the case were that Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, both worked for NAS.  After Regalado filed a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against NAS, NAS fired Thompson. Thompson brought a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, alleging that NAS fired him to retaliate against Regalado for filing her charge.  The trial court threw out Thompson’s claim, and the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court.  However, the Supreme Court reversed those decisions and ruled that Thompson may proceed with his case.

What is unique about the Thompson v. NAS case is that NAS did not fire the employee who filed the initial discrimination charge (Regalado); it fired her boyfriend (Thompson). In its decision the Supreme Court noted that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII must be broadly interpreted. The Court then ruled that “[A]ccepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation—collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer’s unlawful act. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII.”

The full impact of the Thompson v. NAS case remains to be seen.  However, one outcome is certain:  the door is now wide open for third party employees to sue their employers for retaliation under Title VII.  As a practical matter, this means that before an employer takes any action against an employee, the employer should also take steps to ensure that its decision is not connected in any way to some other employee’s activity that is protected under Title VII.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.
Advertisements

January 19, 2011

Firing over false gun rumor costs Rochester, MN hotel $476,326.00

Posted in Breach of Contract, Contracts, Defamation, Firearms / Guns, Libel, Slander, Workplace Violence, Wrongful Termination tagged , , , , at 10:26 am by Tom Jacobson

Two weeks ago, I commented on the case of a Minnesota casino employee who was fired for bringing a gun to work (Packin’ heat at work:  Is it always employment misconduct? http://bit.ly/fSLNWC).  There, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a determination that the employee’s actions were misconduct which disqualified him from unemployment benefits.

But what if an employer fires an employee based on the mistaken belief that he brought a gun to work and threatened to kill management, his union representative and himself if things didn’t go his way?  For the Rochester, MN Marriott hotel, the mistake was very costly, for it resulted in a $476,326.00 jury verdict in favor of a discharged bellhop, Jeff Moen.  The case was Moen v. Sunstone Hotel Properties, Inc. d/b/a Marriott Hotel.

The gun rumor started circulating in October, 2007.  When management learned of it the next day, they took immediate steps to fire Moen.  This included informing the supposedly threatened union representatives and interviewing the co-workers who had heard the rumor.  When Moen reported to work, he was frisked by a police officer, escorted to a conference room and fired.  Both the hotel and the union then sought restraining orders and barred him from the hotel and the union hall.

The problem for the hotel was that the rumor was false.  In a subsequent investigation by Moen’s attorney, the bellman who allegedly heard Moen’s gun threat denied ever hearing or repeating it.

Moen sued for breach of his union contract and defamation.  The jury awarded him $157,326.00 in lost wages, $200,000.00 for past damage to reputation and $119,000.00 for future damage to reputation.

The case points out the difficult question that arises when an employer is confronted with threats of potential workplace violence:  to what extent must the employer investigate the threat before taking action?  If the employer reacts too cautiously, and it turns out that the threat is real, the result could be disastrous.  If, as in Jeff Moen’s case, the employer reacts too aggressively, the result could be costly.  It appears that to avoid this result, Marriott should have dug a little deeper to get to the underlying source of the rumor before actually firing Moen.

For more detail about the case, see Fired bellhop gets $476K for defamation, says Olmsted County District Court, http://bit.ly/gWngAs.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

January 12, 2011

EEOC reports “unprecedented” number of charges in 2010

Posted in Discrimination, Race, Retaliation tagged , , , , at 10:53 am by Tom Jacobson

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has released its discrimination charge statistics for fiscal year 2010. Its report shows that private sector job bias claims reached the unprecedented level of 99,992 charges for the year ending September 30, 2010. The EEOC also reports that “Through its combined enforcement, mediation and litigation programs, the EEOC secured more than $404 million in monetary benefits from employers — the highest level of monetary relief ever obtained by the Commission through the administrative process — to promote inclusive and discrimination-free workplaces. EEOC Reports Job Bias Charges Hit Record High of Nearly 100,000 in Fiscal Year 2010, http://bit.ly/gpKA4w).

Although the number of charges increased in all categories, FY 2010 was the first year in which retaliation (36,258 claims) surpassed race (35,890 claims) as the most frequently alleged violation. Also according to the EEOC, its mediation program set a record of 9,370 cases resolved through mediation (a ten percent increase).

Some analysts suggest that the surge in job bias claims has been fueled by a bad economy which motivates displaced or disgruntled employees to litigate. Dismal Job Market Fuels Job Bias Claims, http://on.today.com/gIFYoG.  Other contributing factors include the increasingly diverse workforce and the EEOC’s own efforts to spread the word about workplace discrimination. The EEOC reports that in FY 2010 it delivered its public outreach message to 250,000 people.

Regardless of the reasons for the increased number of charges, the EEOC’s statistics stand as a vivid reminder that unlawful discrimination persists in the U.S. workforce. Employers who take a pro-active approach at eliminating job-bias and taking prompt remedial action when issues arise will be in the best position to defend those claims should they arise in their workplace.

The EEOC’s FY 2010 statistics can be found at http://bit.ly/hr87vj.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

January 5, 2011

Packin’ heat at work – is it always employment misconduct?

Posted in Employee Handbooks, Firearams / Guns, Firearms / Guns, Firearms / Guns, Misconduct, Unemployment Benefits, Workplace Violence tagged , , , , , , at 10:20 am by Tom Jacobson

After Derek Schroeder was fired for bringing a gun to work, he applied for unemployment benefits. Not surprisingly, he was denied on the basis that he had committed employment misconduct. That outcome may seem predictable, but a closer look shows that had the facts been slightly different, Schroeder may have won his case.

Schroeder worked as a full-time casino investigator for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians.  He also worked as a part-time police officer for the Mille Lacs Tribal Police Department. One evening, Schroeder needed to attend training for his police job after his investigator job. He was required to bring his handgun to the training. Rather than leave his gun at home or in his car, he put it in a duffel bag which he brought into the casino.  During his shift at the casino, he showed the gun to a co-worker.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals declared this to be misconduct for two reasons. First, the employer had a policy which expressly prohibited the possession of firearms in the workplace. Thus, by bringing a gun to work, the court said Schroeder committed misconduct by knowingly violating a reasonable employment policy. Second, the Court noted that by bringing the handgun to work and displaying it, Schroeder committed employment misconduct by creating a safety risk which was the reasonable basis for the employer’s no-guns policy.

Key to the Court’s decision was the fact that the employer had a policy prohibiting the possession of firearms at work. The Court also noted that Schroeder displayed the gun to a co-worker.  Had the company not had the policy, or had Schroeder kept the gun concealed in his bag, perhaps the outcome would have been different.  The case points out that well-drafted policies help define employment misconduct — even when it seems obvious.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

%d bloggers like this: