By Lorene D. Park, J.D. Fired only two months after being hired, on the same day he complained that a female coworker was falsely accusing him of inappropriate sexual behavior, an employee raised triable issues on his Title VII retaliation claim. In addition to the timing of the termination coming "on the heels" of his complaint, the federal district court in Illinois found it significant that he was not given a chance to tell his side of the story (Ruff v. DuPage County, July 25, 2016, Ellis, S.). The employee was hired on June 15, 2014, to contact businesses about participating in a county program offering manufacturing jobs to recent high school graduates. Paired with a female youth career counselor, the two also met with high school students and recent graduates. On one such occasion, a male graduate remarked that his arms hurt from taking care of his infant son and the female coworker responded: "you build arm muscles doing that." As she made the remark, she reached for the employee’s arm and he stopped her from touching him by touching her elbow. False accusations? Soon thereafter, the coworker emailed the employee, stating that she felt uncomfortable when he grabbed her arm. He forwarded this to his supervisor, explaining that he had merely stopped the coworker from touching him and asking how to respond. The supervisor said she would send the email to the director of workplace development, and told the employee that the coworker had "pulled this before" and had claimed that "people whistle at her." On July 23, the female coworker complained that the employee had whistled at her while taking pictures of a work project. The employee’s supervisor and the female coworker’s supervisor met with both of them and the employee accused the coworker of lying. He also began shivering and his supervisor took him to another office, where he said he wanted the accusations to stop. Employee’s complaints. Later that day, the employee emailed his supervisor and the director, stating: "to protect myself from the abusive acquisitions [sic], I’d like to know my options on filling [sic] a harassment complaint against the perpetrator of the abusive acquisitions [sic]. I wish to be able to come to work and do my job without having to constantly defend myself. I would think anyone would wish that in a professional work environment. Note, I am not copying HR on this at this time I am only weighing that option." He mistakenly wrote "acquisitions" instead of "accusations." He sent a second, nearly identical, email later that day, adding the coworker’s name. The workplace development director sent the email to the HR director and another HR rep, stating "he is saying she is harassing him, she is saying he is harassing her." Termination. On July 24, the employee and his coworker met individually with the HR director. The employee was told that he was there to listen, not talk; that the director did not want to hear about "outside stuff;" and that he was to be professional, work with the female coworker, and move on. He asked if HR was the correct place to file a harassment claim, to which the director replied that HR was the right place, but he should move on. He was never asked to tell his side of the story. Later that day, the director of workplace development decided to fire the employee because he and the coworker could not get along. He was informed on July 29. Thereafter, he filed suit alleging sex and age discrimination as well as retaliation. The employer moved for summary judgment, which the employee only contested as to his Title VII retaliation claim. Protected activity. The employer argued that the employee’s communications were too informal and did not establish that he was opposing the coworker’s conduct. Disagreeing, the court noted that "both formal and informal" complaints to an employer may qualify as protected activity. The employee sent two emails asking how he could protect himself from the false accusations. While he stated that he did not want HR involved, it was clear he only meant that he did not yet want to pursue a formal complaint, but he did want to protect himself. Also, the director of workplace development understood that he was complaining about harassment and she shared the emails with the HR director, who met with the employee the next day and told him to move on. From this, a jury could find that he sufficiently communicated to the supervisor and the directors that he opposed the coworker’s allegations, which he understood to be harassment. Because of sex. Also rejected was the employer’s argument that, even if the employee was opposing harassment, he failed to indicate it was based on sex or another protected class. While his complaints did not explicitly mention sex, they were grounded in facts sufficient to create an inference of a connection to his gender. A jury could find that, under the circumstances, the employer should have understood that the coworker was raising sex-based complaints that were repetitive and typical of her prior complaints and that the employee was opposing her allegedly false reports, which he viewed as harassment. In other words, he was trying to stop a female coworker whom he believed was harassing him because he was a man. Causation. The employee also had sufficient evidence that his protected activity was a "substantial or motivating factor" in his discharge. The director of workplace development concluded—based on her own analysis of the employee’s and female coworker’s behavior as well as the HR director’s description of the July 24 individual meetings—that the employee and coworker could not work together. She admitted that her decision was supported in part by the pair’s complaints about each other, and the last behavior she witnessed by the employee was his informal complaint about the coworker’s allegedly false allegations. Also, while it was unknown exactly what was said at the meetings with HR, it could be inferred that the employee asked how to file a formal complaint and he was admonished by the HR director to move on the same day the other director decided to fire him because he could not "move forward with the program." This suggested a unity of thought by the directors. Moreover, the employee was not allowed to tell his side of the story; he was told to listen, not talk. Based on this, as well as the close temporal proximity of the termination coming "on the heels" of protected activity, summary judgment was not appropriate with respect to the retaliation claim.
Interested in submitting an article?
Submit your information to us today!Learn More