Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees in New York and around the country from employers' retaliatory acts after reporting violations, like sexual harassment. An employer, however, must intend that actions punish someone for lawful conduct before suffering liability for retaliation.
In a recent 4th Circuit case, the Court held that to hold an employer liable for retaliation, proof was required that the employer actually intended to retaliate against the complaining employee. This court stated that if the employer had a reason for taking action against an employee that was not prohibited by Title VII, it is not for the courts to "decide whether the reason was wise, fair, or even correct, so long as it was truly the reason for the plaintiff's termination." Villa v Cavamezze Grill LLC et al. 858 F.3d 896, 901 (4th Cir 2017)" The Court went on to state that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII were not intended to immunize insubordinate, disruptive or non productive behavior at work. "Employers must retain the power to discipline and discharge disobedient employees."Id at 902-3.
In this case, the plaintiff, a female manager, reported to the employer that a former employee had complained to her that the general manager had solicited sex in exchange for a raise. The plaintiff stated that another employee heard this conversation. The employer investigated, but the people involved denied ever making the allegations or participating in the conversation. The company then fired the female manager for making a false claim.
When the dismissed manager launched a suit alleging retaliation, the former employee admitted to lying during the investigation. She had made the accusation to the plaintiff, but it had never been true. The admission did not save the retaliation claim. The court decided that because the employer had believed that the employee was lying when it terminated her position, the fact that she was not in fact lying did not alter the outcome.
This is a very conservative view of the scope of the Title VII retaliation provisions. Nevertheless, employers should pay attention to what is going on in the Fourth Circuit and when faced with a retaliation claim, ask a lawyer whether the Fourth's Circuit's approach is available in the circuit in which the employer is located. In any event, extra care must be taken when an employer terminates someone who has complained about discrimination and/or sexual harassment. Retaliation is a complicated cause of action to defend. Call Egan Law Firm