Retaliation Verdict Upheld Where Employee Was Fired For Using Company Records To Prove Discrimination Claim

Based on a recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, an employee engages in protected activity under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination where she or he copies and takes company documents for the purpose of aiding the prosecution of a discrimination claim.

In Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corporation, the plaintiff-employee, Joyce Quinlan, was an experienced human resources professional who had joined the defendant-employer, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, in 1980. By 1999, she had become the Executive Director of Human Resources. In 2003, the employer re-organized its HR department and, in doing so, promoted a male employee, Kenneth Lewis, with allegedly less experience to the position of Vice President. As a result, the plaintiff-employee became this particular male employee’s subordinate.

The plaintiff believed that she had been passed over for the Vice President position because she is a woman. At trial, for instance, Quinlan presented evidence that few women held senior managerial positions within the company; that women (including Quinlan herself) were commonly excluded from certain company events, even when the discussions related to the HR department; and that the CEO often golfed with Lewis.

Quinlan provided her attorneys with more than 1,800 pages of company documents, which she believed bolstered her case. In November 2003, counsel filed a complaint on plaintiff’s behalf alleging, among other claims, gender discrimination. Plaintiff’s counsel later produced to opposing counsel the company documents his client had assembled.

Several weeks after making this production, the plaintiff’s attorneys deposed Lewis and, during the course of that deposition, questioned him about his most recent performance appraisal, which allegedly rated him as needing improvement in several areas. Lewis claimed that he had never before seen the appraisal. Following this deposition, the company terminated Quinlan for allegedly continuing to copy confidential information.

In charging the jury, the trial court noted that there was a significant difference between the taking of the document and its use at the deposition:

[W]hile Joyce Quinlan’s conduct in copying and removing copies of documents is not protected and is conduct for which she could have been justifiably terminated, the conduct of her attorneys in using those documents in the process of prosecuting this lawsuit is protected activity and could not properly have been a determinative factor in terminating her. In other words, if you find that a determinative factor in Curtiss-Wright’s decision to terminate Joyce Quinlan was her attorneys’ use of any of the documents, including but not limited to [Mr. Lewis’s performance appraisal], such a finding would be the basis of finding for Joyce Quinlan. On the other hand, if the real reason for her termination was her copying and removing the documents, including but not limited to [the performance appraisal], such a motive by Curtiss-Wright would not be actionable.

The jury ultimately found for the plaintiff-employee, awarding her approximately $4.2 million in back pay and front pay economic damages for her retaliation claim. The jury also found, by clear and convincing evidence, that the employer had intentionally engaged in unlawful conduct and, as a result, awarded approximately $4.5 million in punitive damages.

The Appellate Division found that the trial court had erred in its jury instruction and vacated the retaliation verdict. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Division and reinstated the retaliation verdict. In so doing, the Court adopted a flexible, totality of the circumstances approach to decide whether an employee is privileged to take or to use documents belonging to the employer. The Court set forth seven factors:

1.How the employee obtained the document
2.With whom the employee shared the document
3.The nature and content of the document
4.Whether the taking of the document violated a company policy that is routinely enforced
5.The relevance of the document to the employee’s claim vs. whether its disclosure was unduly disruptive to the employer
6.The relevance of the document to the employee’s claim vs. whether the document was likely to be destroyed or lost
7.The broad remedial purpose of anti-discrimination laws and how permitting or precluding the use of the document will affect the legitimate rights of both employers and employees

Overall, given the nuances in cases like this, employees are well-advised to first meet with an attorney before deciding to take company documents.

Race Discrimination Claim Filed Against Texas Company Alleging Rampant Use Of Racial Slurs

Race discrimination claims continue to grab headlines. In its article entitled Industrial Services Firm Faces Bias Suit, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that “[n]early 250 workers sued Turner Industries Group of Baton Rouge on Sunday, alleging racial discrimination in hiring, pay, promotions and on-the-job treatment.”

The allegations in the complaint, which numbers more than 300 pages, are especially egregious:

Robinson and his similarly situated Black co-workers have been and continue to be subjected to racially offensive graffiti displayed at Turner job sites. For example, he has seen “Nigger hang from a tree,” and “fuck you niggers, go back to Africa.” He has also seen a noose and several confederate flags hung in the bays at Turner.

Jeffery and his similarly situated Black co-workers have been subjected to racial graffiti and depictions throughout Turner facilities and job sites. The bathrooms were constantly covered in offensive comments such as, “Niggers don’t belong here,” and he has seen drawings of White people wearing KKK hats.

Jones and his similarly situated Black co-workers have been subjected to a racially hostile atmosphere at Turner’s facilities. For example, White workers would leave notes on his truck calling him “nigger” and saying, “I know you sell drugs you nigger fucker.” Jones reported these notes to management, but Turner did not do anything to stop the notes.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated similar complaints of racial harassment at Turner Industries. In early 2010, the EEOC found that numerous instances of racial harassment occurred at the company’s Paris, Texas plant — which included the use of racial epithets and symbols of discrimination. The Dallas Morning News reported the EEOC’s findings in its article entitled,
EEOC: Black workers harassed at pipe factory in East Texas.

If you’re the victim of race discrimination and harassment, its important to act quickly to preserve your rights and hopefully put an end to the hostile work environment. Please contact us to learn more about this process and about our Firm’s special focus in this area.

Supreme Court Rules That Title VII Allows Third-Party Retaliation Claims

Employees who are victims of third-party retaliation clearly state a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In Thompson v. North American Stainless, the United States Supreme Court held that the plaintiff-employee fell within the “zone of interest” to bring a claim under Title VII. There, Eric Thompson worked at the same employer of his then-fiancée (now wife), Miriam Regalado. Unfortunately, the employer fired Mr. Thompson after Ms. Regalado filed a sex discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mr. Thompson then filed his own complaint with the EEOC for retaliation under Title VII.

In its opinion, District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky granted summary judgment for the employer on the basis that Title VII does not contemplate third-party retaliation claims. In doing so, the court stated:

The Court recognizes that retaliating against a spouse or close associate of an employee will deter the employee from engaging in protected activity just as much as if the employee were himself retaliated against. But, the Court also finds persuasive the reasoning that Title VII already offers broad protection in such situations by prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees who oppose unlawful employment actions or who participate in any manner in a proceeding under Title VII.

In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit (en banc) affirmed, reasoning:

Even under the most generous definition of “oppose” recognized by the Court in Crawford—”to be hostile or adverse to, as in opinion”—a plaintiff must engage in a discrete, identifiable, and purposive act of opposition to discrimination. Thus, such action is a critical component of a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII. The plain text simply cannot be read to encompass “piggyback” protection of employees like Thompson who, by his own admission, did not engage in protected activity, but who is merely associated with another employee who did oppose an alleged unlawful employment practice.

The Supreme Court reversed and, in doing so, rejected the employer’s argument that Title VII claims should be limited to the person who was the subject of unlawful retaliation:

[W]e conclude that Thompson falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. Thompson was an employee of NAS, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions. Moreover, accepting 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. He is a person aggrieved with standing to sue.

The case was successfully argued by Professor Eric Schnapper of the University of Washington School of Law. Thanks to The Oyez Project, the oral argument can be heard here.

Workplace Discrimination Laws Broadened By The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

Employees will soon gain protection against employers that utilize genetic testing or consider genetic background in making hiring, firing, promotion decisions. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”) passed by Congress in March 2008 becomes effective law in the next coming weeks as this New York Times story details:
Law Seeks to Ban Misuse of Genetic Testing. On November 21, 2009, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act takes effect for all employers with 15 or more employees and on December 7, 2009, the Act takes effect for insurers.

GINA forbids certain discrimination on the basis of genetic information and the collecting and sharing of certain genetic information. GINA only allows the collection of genetic information in a few limited circumstances:

(1) If the information is necessary for a certification requirement under the Family and Medical Leave Act or a state leave statute.
(2) If the information is used to monitor the effects of hazardous workplace exposure; or
(3) If the employer conducts DNA analysis as a forensic laboratory.

As science uncovers more and more genetic predispositions for disease, the importance of protecting employees from discrimination on the basis of their genes increases. Without GINA, employers would have a strong incentive to discriminate against talented employees whose genetic background threaten to drive up their health insurance premiums. Senator Ted Kennedy heralded the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act as “the first major civil rights bill of the new century.” Without GINA, as genetic screening became more common place, employees with “bad genes” might have found themselves unemployable.

GINA forbids discrimination not only on the basis of an employee or prospective employee’s genetic information, but also discrimination based upon genetic information of family members. A “family member” includes an individual’s spouse, dependent child and certain other relatives.

Employees should know that, unlike HIPAA and some other health laws that do not allow an employee to sue for violations, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act confers a private cause of action on certain victims of genetic discrimination. Section 207 of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act gives a cause of action to employees and prospective employees who are discriminated against on the basis of their genetic information or whose genetic information is improperly collected or shared.

GINA enables employees to recover lost wages, costs, attorney’s fees and, in some instances, punitive damages. The punitive damages provisions have ceilings. For example, if the employer has more than 500 employees, an employee may recover up to $300,000 in punitive damages. There is also a retaliation provision to GINA that gives a cause of action to any employee who opposes a policy or procedure that violates GINA.

Commissioned Employees in a Tough Economy: Will You Get Paid?

Employees who receive commissions based on their work performance may face difficulty in securing payments from employers in this tough economy. Under certain circumstances, however, legal recourse exists to secure payment from unscrupulous employers who attempt to cut corners by depriving employees of legally earned commissions.

The Massachusetts Wage Act, namely M.G.L. c. 149, §148, explicitly defines the term “wages” to equal “commissions” where certain parameters are satisfied:

This section shall apply … to the payment of commissions when the amount of such commissions, less allowable or authorized deductions, has been definitely determined and has become due and payable to such employee ….

Where commissions are “due and payable” and “definitely determined,” the caselaw in Massachusetts makes clear that the Wage Act applies to highly paid executives, and not just hourly workers. In Wiedmann v. Bradford Group, Inc., the Supreme Judicial Court upheld a claim of pay to a professional who had earned an irregular commission which had been held, by the trial court, to have been unprotected. Thereafter, the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Okerman v. VA Software Corp. followed the Wiedmann decision, and explicitly held it was reversible error to dismiss wage claims of highly paid executives claiming irregular, contingent commissions, above and beyond a “healthy” base salary. The Appeals Court further opined that to exclude the recovery of such commissions would “vitiate the entire paragraph in the Wage Act addressing commissions,” and render the commissions paragraph meaningless.

It is illegal for an employer to in any way penalize an employee who attempts to recover unpaid commissions. The Supreme Judicial Court in Smith v. Winter Place, LLC has interpreted this provision to cover internal complaints: “Complaint made to an employer (or a manger of the employer) by an employee who reasonably believes that the wages he or she has been paid violate such laws readily qualifies as” protected conduct.

When seeking to recover unpaid commissions, its important to determine first whether the commissions can be construed as “wages” under the Massachusetts Wage Act, and second to ensure that you are protected from retaliation.

Retaliation Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower

Guyden sued the employer, asserting a whistleblower claim under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). The trial court dismissed, based on the parties’ arbitration agreement. The 2nd Circuit affirmed.

We need not determine what our decision would be under those circumstances, however, because this Agreement gives the arbitrator the power to order additional discovery upon a showing by Guyden that such discovery is necessary to enable her to present her claim. The
FAA also provides the arbitrator with further authority to compel the production of evidence and
witnesses at a pre-merits hearing. Guyden thus has both a contractual and a statutory basis for further discovery should it prove necessary for her claim. Although Guyden asserts that she will be unable to make the showing of necessity the arbitrator will require, her challenge assumes that, in violation of her contractual and statutory rights, an arbitrator will deny her needed discovery. Guyden has introduced no evidence that her fears are well-founded, however, and we must enforce the Agreement unless and until the record proves otherwise.

The court held that SOX claims are subject to arbitration. The court rejected Guyden’s argument that there exists an “inherent conflict” between SOX’s underlying purpose (the public dissemination of information about a corporate employer’s fraudulent activities) and arbitration. The court observed that “[t]ellingly … both Houses of Congress, acting separately, rejected versions of SOX that would have prohibited mandatory arbitration of whistleblower claims.” Guyden made a similar argument regarding a confidentiality clause in the arbitration agreement, but the court rejected that as well. With respect to that conclusion, the court stated “[w]e agree … with the Fifth Circuit’s observation that confidentiality clauses are so common in the arbitration context that Guyden’s ‘attack on the confidentiality provision is, in part, an attack on the character of arbitration itself.'”

The Second Circuit’s decision in Guyden v. Aetna

Whistleblower Claims under Sarbanes-Oxley Subject to Arbitration

Whistleblowers bringing claims under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) must contend with another hurdle in getting such claims before a judge or jury. In Guyden v. Aetna, the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Sarbanes-Oxley claims are subject to arbitration.

In that case, Linda Guyden worked as Aetna’s Director of Internal Audit. At numerous points throughout her employment, Guyden allegedly expressed concerns over Aetna’s Internal Audit Department, describing it as “ineffective, demoralized, and without independence or objectivity.” Guyden allegedly raised her concerns with senior management and advocated the need for an outside audit. Eventually, Aetna agreed to an outside audit to review its internal controls. According to Guyden, however, senior management delayed the release of the outside auditor’s report. Aetna terminated Guyden’s employment shortly before she was scheduled to meet with the company’s Audit Committee and review the outside report.

Guyden filed her lawsuit for wrongful termination pursuant to Section 1514A of SOX, which prohibits public companies from “discharg[ing] . . . an employee . . . because of any lawful act done by the employee . . . to provide information . . . regarding any conduct which the employee reasonably believes constitutes a violation of [federal securities law], when the information or assistance is provided to . . . a person with supervisory authority over the employee . . ..” In response, Aetna requested that the court dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration based on an arbitration agreement that Guyden had executed.

The trial court agreed and the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, stating:

The primary purpose of the statute is to provide a private remedy for the aggrieved employee, not to publicize alleged corporate misconduct. Although Guyden correctly points out that the broad purpose of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is to strengthen the integrity of capital markets, the whistleblower provision in particular fills a far narrower gap in the law–it protects employees when they take lawful acts to disclose information or otherwise assist in detecting and stopping actions which they reasonably believe to be fraudulent.

The Second Circuit further noted the legislative history surrounding the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act:

Tellingly, and further undermining Guyden’s argument that the public purpose of SOX should preclude arbitration, both Houses of Congress, acting separately, rejected versions of SOX that would have prohibited mandatory arbitration of whistleblower claims.

Although her claim is not lost, arbitration in general favors employers over employees. The Second Circuit’s ruling presents yet another sobering lesson for employees: If you have any doubt about the implications of a document that your employer requests you to sign, run it by an employment lawyer first.

Family Rights Discrimination Continues to be a Hot Button Issue

Family rights discrimination (FRD) — discrimination against an employee who serves as a caregiver to a family member — continues to be a hot button issue in the workplace. According to the Center for WorkLife Law (CWL), there were a total of just 8 FRD cases filed in the 1970s. The number significantly increased over the next several years, with a total of 97 FRD cases filed from 1986 to 1995. Unfortunately, FRD has shown little sign of abatement. From 1986 to 2005, FRD filings totaled 481; an increase of approximately 400%.

While smaller businesses present the highest incidence of FRD, large companies — even those recognized by Fortune as “Best Companies to Work For” — have been sued for such discrimination. According to the CWL, the success rate of FRD cases is relatively high, coming in at greater than 50% versus 20% for other types of discrimination cases. Notably, the average award for FRD cases is slightly over $100,000 with a high of $25 million.

Not surprisingly, women are plaintiffs in the overwhelming majority of FRD cases. It is not uncommon for such cases to arise in the context of pregnancy. A recent article featured in Forbes entitled How To Balance Work and Pregnancy, highlights two scenarios of which employees should be mindful:

Be Conscientious
If you do all this and notice your boss is restricting the types of projects you work on or has taken you off the partnership track, address it with him. In the best scenario, the boss is trying to make things easy on you (albeit unfairly). Document all of these changes and then say something to him. In most cases, it’s a misunderstanding that will be rectified by your bringing it to his attention.

Be Wary
If it’s a more serious situation, such as the boss making offhand comments about your pregnancy affecting your work, continue to document those instances. Also keep note of the change in assignments you’re getting. First, go to your boss and ask if there’s a problem with the quality of your work. If it doesn’t improve, bring all the examples to human resources. Discriminating against someone because they’re pregnant is illegal, and most companies will handle the situation immediately.

When in doubt, consult with an attorney who concentrates in employment law. You owe it to yourself, your family, and your career.

Race Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Filed Against NASCAR

One of the most egregious fact patterns in a race discrimination case has presented itself against NASCAR. Maurica Grant, 32-year-old black female, worked as a technical inspector from January 2005 until her termination in October 2007. During her employment, Grant was allegedly subjected to a panoply of racially hostile and offensive conduct, which included:

Being called “Nappy Headed Mo” and “Queen Sheba” by her co-workers
Being told she worked on “colored people time”
Enduring references to the Ku Klux Klan made by one particular race official
Being asked, “Does your workout include an urban obstacle course with a flat-screen TV on your back?”
Being forced to work outside more often than white male officials because her supervisors believed she couldn’t sunburn because she was black
Being instructed to duck as she passed race fans in the backseat of a carpool with one race official stating, “I don’t want to start a riot when these fans see a black woman in my car”
Being told, “Keep smiling and pop your eyes out ’cause we can’t see you.”
Being accused of being gay when she rejected the sexual advances of co-workers

NASCAR allegedly terminated Grant approximately two months after she complained about how she was treated. For more information, please visit the Chicago Tribune article entitled, Mauricia Grant, NASCAR.

Sexual Harassment and Race Discrimination Claims Against Tavern on the Green Settled for $2.2 million

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently finished prosecuting a case involving severe sexual harassment as well as gender and race discrimination against New York’s landmark restaurant, Tavern on the Green. According to the EEOC, Tavern on the Green subjected female, black, and Hispanic employees to continual lewd and degrading conduct. Female employees were allegedly forced to endure demands for sexual acts as well as various forms of groping and inappropriate touching. Black and Hispanic employees also allegedly experienced racial epithets and ridicule for their accents.

The EEOC, which brought the suit on behalf of 50 employees, was successful in securing a settlement of $2.2 million. As part of the settlement, Tavern on the Green is also required to establish a telephone hotline for employees to report discrimination complaints. In its Press Release, EEOC New York District Director Spencer H. Lewis made clear the duty that employers owe to their workers:

This case should remind employers to take seriously allegations of harassment and retaliation, especially where managers in positions of authority are involved in the misconduct.

According to Professor Marcia McCormick of Cumberland School of Law (Samford University), the lawsuit signified a victory for the EEOC’s EEOC’s E-RACE Initiative (Eradicating Racism and Colorism from Employment), which was launched in 2008 to eliminate race discrimination from the workplace by enhancing public awareness and through litigating unlawful employment practices.

For more information, please visit the New York Times’ article entitled, Tavern on the Green to Pay $2.2 Million to Settle Harassment Claim.