Retaliation Claims Recognized: Employees Victimized by Discrimination Gain Victory Before Supreme Court

Employees recently scored two major victories before the United States Supreme Court. Both cases involved allegations of workplace discrimination. In each case, the Supreme Court recognized an employee’s right to bring claims for retaliation where reports of unlawful discrimination result in a backlash by the employer.

In Gomez-Perez v. Potter, Myrna Gómez-Pérez worked as a clerk for the United States Postal Service in Puerto Rico. During her employment, Gómez alleged that she was subject to retaliatory treatment after filing an age discrimination complaint against her supervisors under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The federal district court of Puerto Rico granted summary judgment to USPS, reasoning that the United States had not waived sovereign immunity as to retaliation claims under the ADEA. Gómez appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which disagreed on the sovereign immunity issue but dismissed the retaliation on the basis that the ADEA does not recognize such claims by federal employees.

In CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, Hendrick Humphries, who is African-American, worked as an associate manager at Cracker Barrel. Following his termination, Humphries filed suit based on race discrimination and retaliation under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The main issue was whether Section 1981 recognizes a claim for retaliation. While Humphries lost his case in federal district court, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that Section 1981 protects against retaliation.

In both cases, the Supreme Court refused to restrict employee rights, and affirmed the viability of workplace retaliation claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. For more information about the Supreme Court’s decisions, please visit the New York Times article entitled, Justices Favor Workers in Cases of Bias Retaliation.

Second Circuit Recognizes Associational Discrimination Claim Based on Race

Employment discrimination laws prohibit adverse employment actions, such as termination or demotion, based on race, gender, religion, disability, and certain other protected categories. More recently, the courts have had to grapple with claims of “associational discrimination.”

The Second Circuit’s recent ruling in Holcomb v. Iona College recognized the viability of such claims. In that case, the plaintiff worked as an assistant coach of the Iona College basketball team. Iona College eventually fired Holcomb, claiming that his termination had to do with his poor job performance. Holcomb, who is white, believed that he was fired because his wife is African-American. While the district court granted summary judgment for Iona (i.e., dismissing the case), the Second Circuit remanded on appeal.

The issue before the Second Circuit was one of first impression: Can an an employer violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of another race? The court rejected Iona’s reasoning and answered this question in the affirmative:

We reject this restrictive reading of Title VII. The reason is simple: where an employee is subjected to adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee’s own race. All the district judges in this circuit to consider the question, including the district court in this case, have reached that conclusion.

In reaching its decision, the court also noted the egregious conduct that the plaintiff endured from Iona’s Director of Athletics, Richard Petriccione:

Early in his tenure as an assistant coach, Holcomb claims to have heard Petriccione say: “[E]verybody at Fordham thinks they have these good black kids, and Iona has niggers.” A year later, when several black members of the Iona Gaels were accused of stealing and selling telephone access codes, Petriccione allegedly told Holcomb that the basketball program needed to “keep [its] niggers in line.” Colleagues at Iona testified to Petriccione’s record of what might, charitably, be called racial insensitivity. Egregiously in this respect, Petriccione is said to have referred to a Nigerian employee at the Alumni Giving Office as a “jungle bunny” and an “African princess.” When that member of staff applied to his office for the position of Assistant Director of Annual Giving, he remarked: “[W]hat does she think she is coming from a hut in Africa and thinking she could apply for this job?” The most striking of the allegations against Petriccione relates directly to Holcomb and his wife. Plaintiff testified that in February 2000, he asked Petriccione whether he had received the wedding invitation that Holcomb and Gauthier had sent him. According to Holcomb, whose claim is backed up in this respect by a third party, Petriccione replied: “[Y]ou’re really going to marry that Aunt Jemima? You really are a nigger lover.”

In recognizing associational discrimination claims based on race, the Second Circuit joins the Sixth, Fifth, and Eleventh Circuits.

Sexual Harassment Victory Before the 11th Circuit Provides Greater Protection for Employees

Sexual harassment victims just scored a major victory before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Ingrid Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide. Ingrid Reeves worked for C.H. Robinson Worldwide (CHRW) based in Birmingham, Alabama as a transportation sales representative from 2001 through 2004. During her tenure, Ms. Reeves states in her complaint that she was subjected to sexually offensive remarks in which her co-workers, the large majority being men, referred to women as “bitch” and “whore.” It was also not uncommon for her male colleagues to allegedly listen to a local radio program discussing women breast sizes and pornography.

In bringing her claim for sexual harassment, Ms. Reeves faced an uphill battle because none of the derogatory comments about women were directed toward her. On this basis, the Northern District Court of Alabama granted summary judgment to CHRW, dismissing her case and preventing Ms. Reeves from going before a jury. Ms. Reeves appealed to the 11th Circuit, which had held in Walker v. Ford Motor Co. that racial epithets in the workplace could support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, even where the derogatory statements were not directed at the plaintiff. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the 11th Circuit extended its holding in Walker to the sexual harassment context:

The language in the CHRW office included the “sex specific” words “bitch,” “whore,” and “cunt” that … may be more degrading to women than men. The subject matter of the conversations and jokes that allegedly permeated the office on a daily basis included male and female sexual anatomy, masturbation, and female pornography, all of which was discussed in a manner that was similarly more degrading to women than men. The radio programming that Reeves claims was also similar. Therefore, even if such language was used indiscriminately in the office such that men and women were equally exposed to the language, the language had a discriminatory effect on Reeves because of its degrading nature. Accordingly, just as the language in Walker was sufficient to support Walker’s hostile work environment claim because it particularly offended Walker as a black man, we hold that the evidence Reeves presented was sufficient to survive summary judgment on the “based on” element here.

This is a key victory for employees who must endure sexually hostile work environments. Under the 11th Circuit’s decision in Reeves, employers will no longer be able to hide behind obtuse technicalities to avoid liability. For more information about this decision, please visit’s article entitled, 11th Circuit OKs Suit Based on Sexual Language in Office.

Pregnancy Discrimination Lawsuit Filed Against Bloomberg L.P.

Pregnancy discrimination, which is a form of gender discrimination, is becoming a hot button issue in 2008. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a class-action lawsuit against Bloomberg L.P., the financial-services and media company founded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, on behalf of at least 54 women who accuse the firm of discriminating against pregnant employees. The suit puts Bloomberg L.P. in a familiar position, representing the latest in a series of discrimination and sexual harassment complaints filed against the firm since the 1990s.

According to EEOC lawyer, Raechel L. Adams, the number of women represented in the class action is likely to grow. As part of its continuing investigation, the EEOC is interviewing 478 Bloomberg L.P. female employees who took maternity leave at some point from 2002 to the present.

Monica Prestia is among those represented in the suit. According to the lawsuit, Ms. Prestia received the worst performance review of her career after giving birth to her first child in 2005. Thereafter, the suite alleges, she experienced hostility from a supervisor who could not have children and was asked by a different supervisor: “What is this, your third baby?”

Although Mayor Bloomberg remains the firm’s majority shareholder, the suit does not name him as a defendant. For more information about this issue, please visit the New York Times article entitled, 54 More Women Accuse Bloomberg Firm of Bias.