U.S. employers, employment agencies, unions, their benefit plans and fiduciaries, and their management and service providers should move quickly to review and strengthen their employment and other practices to guard against a foreseeable surge in employee retaliation claims and judgements likely to follow the August 30, 2016 issuance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of its new final EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues and concurrently published Question and Answer Guidance(Guidance).
Updating and superceding 2008 guidance previously set forth in the Retaliation Chapter of the EEOC Enforcement Manual, the Guidance details the EEOC’s current policy for investigating and enforcing the retaliation prohibitions under each of the equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws enforced by EEOC, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) and Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) as well as the ADA’s separate “interference” prohibitions, which prohibit coercion, threats, or other acts that interfere with the exercise of ADA rights. Among other things, the Guidance discusses :
- What “retaliation means” and the scope of employee activity protected by the prohibitions against retaliation included in all laws enforced by the EEOC as well as the interference prohibitions of the ADA;
- Legal analysis the EEOC will use to determine if evidence supports a claim of retaliation against an employer or other party;
- Detailed examples of employer actions that the EEOC says may constitute prohibited retaliation; and
Remedies available for retaliation.
Understanding and properly responding to the Guidance is critically important for employers and other subject to the EEO laws because in light of the substantial and growing liability exposures retaliation claims present and the likely that the issuance of the Guidance will further fuel these risks.
Even before the EEOC published the Guidance, retaliation and interference exposures were a substantial source of concern for most employers. Employers, employment agencies and unions caught engaging in prohibited retaliation or intimidation in violation of EEO laws can incur compensatory and (except for governmental employers) punitive damage awards, back pay, front pay, reinstatement into a job or other equitable remedies, injunctive or administrative orders requiring changes in employer policies and procedures, managerial training, reporting to the EEOC and other corrective measures, as well as substantial investigation and defense costs.
These substantial liability exposures have become particularly concerning as retaliation and interference claims also have become increasingly common over the past decade. According to the EEOC, for example, EEO law retaliation charges have remained the most frequently alleged basis of charges filed with the EEOC since 2009 and in Fiscal Year 2015 accounted for 44.5 percent of all employment discrimination charges received by EEOC.
Since the EEOC’s issuance of the Retaliation Regs are likely to encourage additional retaliation or interference claims, employers, employment agencies, unions and their management, service providers and agents should quickly to evaluate the updated guidance provided in the Retaliation Reg and act to mitigate their exposure to retaliation retaliation and interference claims under these EEO laws.
Retaliation Risks Under EEO Laws
Federal EEO laws generally prohibit employers, employment agencies, or unions from punishing or taking other adverse actions against job applicants or employees for “asserting their rights” (often referred to as “protected activity”) to be free from harassment or other prohibited employment discrimination as well as certain other conduct. Such claims generally are referred to as “retaliation claims.”
Prohibited retaliation in violation of EEO laws occurs when an employer, employment agency or union takes a materially adverse action because an applicant or employee asserts rights or engages in certain other activities protected by the EEO laws.
To prevail in a retaliation claim, an applicant, employee or other individual generally must show that:
- The individual engaged in prior protected activity;
- The employer, employment agency or union took a materially adverse action; and
- More likely than not, retaliation caused the adverse action by the employer, employment agency or union.
Persons Protected By EEO Retaliation Rules
EEO retaliation prohibitions protect both applicants and current and former employees (full-time, part-time, probationary, seasonal, and temporary) against retaliation under the EEO laws. The retaliation prohibitions bar an employer from refusing to hire or otherwise taking adverse action against any current or former applicant or employee because of his EEO complaint or other protected activity under applicable EEO laws. The EEOC interprets the retaliation rules as prohibiting an employer from giving a false negative job reference to punish a former employee for making an EEO complaint or engaging in other protected activity as well as as prohibiting an employer from refusing to hire or otherwise retaliating or discriminating against an applicant or employee based on a complaint made or other protected activity engaged against any a prior employer. The Guidance also makes clear that the retaliation prohibitions apply regardless of an applicant or employee’s citizenship or work authorization status.
“Protected activity” generally means either participating in an EEO process or reasonably opposing conduct made unlawful by an EEO law.
The prohibition against an employer retaliating against an individual for “participating” in an EEO process means that an employer cannot punish an applicant or employee for filing an EEO complaint, serving as a witness, or participating in any other way in an EEO matter, even if the underlying discrimination allegation is unsuccessful or untimely. As a part of these prohibitions, the EEOC says that an employer, employment agency or union is not allowed to do anything in response to EEO activity that would discourage someone from resisting or complaining about future discrimination. For example, depending on the facts of the particular case, it could be retaliation because of the employee’s EEO activity for an employer to:
- Reprimand an employee or give a performance evaluation that is lower than it should be;
- Transfer the employee to a less desirable position;
- Engage in verbal or physical abuse;
- Threaten to make, or actually make reports to authorities (such as reporting immigration status or contacting the police);
- Increase scrutiny;
- Spread false rumors, treat a family member negatively (for example, cancel a contract with the person’s spouse); or
- Take action that makes the person’s work more difficult (for example, punishing an employee for an EEO complaint by purposefully changing his work schedule to conflict with family responsibilities).
The Guidance clearly states that the EEOC views participating in any capacity in a complaint process or other protected equal employment opportunity as protected activity which is protected from retaliation under all circumstances. The EEOC views other acts to oppose discrimination also as protected as long as the employee was acting on a reasonable belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws, even if he or she did not use legal terminology to describe the issue. EEOC’s view is that protections against retaliation extend to participation in an employer’s internal EEO complaint process, even if a charge of discrimination has not yet been filed with the EEOC. The EEOC also takes the position that participation in the EEO process is protected whether or not the EEO allegation is based on a reasonable, good faith belief that a violation occurred. While an employer is free to bring these to light in the EEO matter where it may rightly affect the outcome, the Retaliation Regs state it is unlawful retaliation for an employer to take matters into its own hands and impose consequences for participating in an EEO matter.
In addition to prohibition for participation in protected activities, EEO law also prohibits retaliation against an individual for “opposing” a perceived unlawful EEO practice. The EEOC construes prohibition against retaliation for opposition as prohibiting an employer or other covered entity from punishing an applicant or employee for communicating or taking other action in opposition of a perceived EEO violation if the individual acted reasonably and based on a reasonable good faith belief that the conduct opposed is or could become unlawful if repeated.
According to the EEOC, opposition also can be protected even if it is informal or does not include the words “harassment,” “discrimination,” or other legal terminology. A communication or act may be protected opposition as long as the circumstances show that the individual is conveying resistance to a perceived potential EEO violation such as, for example:
- Complaining or threatening to complain about alleged discrimination against oneself or others;
- Taking part in an internal or external investigation of employment discrimination, including harassment;
- Filing or being a witness in a charge, complaint, or lawsuit alleging discrimination;
- Communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment;
- Answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment;
- Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination;
- Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others;
- Reporting an instance of harassment to a supervisor;
- Requesting accommodation of a disability or for a religious practice;
- Asking managers or co-workers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages;
- Providing information in an employer’s internal investigation of an EEO matter;
- Refusing to obey an order reasonably believed to be discriminatory;
- Advising an employer on EEO compliance;
- Resisting sexual advances or intervening to protect others;
- Passive resistance (allowing others to express opposition);
- Requesting reasonable accommodation for disability or religion;
- Complaining to management about EEO-related compensation disparities;
- Talking to coworkers to gather information or evidence in support of a potential EEO claim; or
- Other acts of opposition.
In order for the protection against opposition to apply, however, the individual must act with a reasonable good faith belief that the conduct opposed is unlawful or could become unlawful if repeated. Opposition not based on such a good faith belief is not protected. Employers should note that the EEOC takes the position that opposition by an employee could qualify as reasonable opposition protected against retaliation when an employee or applicant complains about behavior that is not yet legally harassment (i.e., even if the mistreatment has not yet become severe or pervasive) or to complain about conduct the employee believes violates the EEO laws if the EEOC has adopted that interpretation, even if some courts disagree with the EEOC on the issue.
Furthermore, an individual opposing a perceived violation of an EEO law is disqualified for protection against retaliation for his opposition unless the individual behaves in a reasonable manner when expressing his opposition. For example, threats of violence, or badgering a subordinate employee to give a witness statement, are not protected opposition.
Subject to these conditions, however, the Guidance states that retaliation for opposing perceived unlawful EEOC practices need not be applied directly to the employee to qualify for protection. If an employer, employment agency or union takes an action against someone else, such as a family member or close friend, in order to retaliate against an employee, the EEOC says both individuals would have a legal claim against the employer.
Moreover, according to the EEOC, the prohibitions against retaliation for participation and opposition apply regardless of whether the person is suffers the retaliation for acting as a witness or otherwise participating in the investigation of a prohibited practice regarding an EEO complaint brought by others, or for complaining of conduct that directly affects himself.
Materially Adverse Action
To fall within EEO law prohibitions against retaliation, the retaliatory actions must be “materially adverse,” which the Guidance defines to include any action that under the facts and circumstances might deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity. This definition of “materially adverse” sweeps broadly to include more than employment actions such as denial of promotion, non-hire, denial of job benefits, demotion, suspension, discharge, or other actions that can be challenged directly as employment discrimination. It also encompasses within the scope of retaliation employer action that is work-related, as well as other actions with no tangible effect on employment, or even an action that takes place exclusively outside of work, as long as it may well dissuade a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.
Whether an action is materially adverse depends on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that transferring a worker to a harder, dirtier job within the same pay grade, and suspending her without pay for more than a month (even though the pay was later reimbursed) were both “materially adverse actions” that could be challenged as retaliation. The Supreme Court has also said that actionable retaliation includes: the FBI’s refusing to investigate death threats against an agent; the filing of false criminal charges against a former employee; changing the work schedule of a parent who has caretaking responsibilities for school-age children; and excluding an employee from a weekly training lunch that contributes to professional advancement.
In contrast, a petty slight, minor annoyance, trivial punishment, or any other action that is not likely to dissuade an employee from engaging in protected activity in the circumstances is not “materially adverse.” For example, courts have concluded on the facts of given cases that temporarily transferring an employee from an office to a cubicle was not a materially adverse action and that occasional brief delays by an employer in issuing refund checks to an employee that involved small amounts of money were not materially adverse.
The facts and circumstances of each case determine whether a particular action is retaliatory in that context. For this reason, the same action may be retaliatory in one case but not in another. Depending on the facts, other examples of “materially adverse” actions may include:
- Work-related threats, warnings, or reprimands;
- Negative or lowered evaluations;
- Transfers to less prestigious or desirable work or work locations;
- Making false reports to government authorities or in the media;
- Filing a civil action;
- Threatening reassignment;
- Scrutinizing work or attendance more closely than that of other employees, without justification;
- Removing supervisory responsibilities;
- Engaging in abusive verbal or physical behavior that is reasonably likely to deter protected activity, even if it is not yet “severe or pervasive” as required for a hostile work environment;
- Requiring re-verification of work status, making threats of deportation, or initiating other action with immigration authorities because of protected activity;
- Terminating a union grievance process or other action to block access to otherwise available remedial mechanisms; or
- Taking (or threatening to take) a materially adverse action against a close family member (who would then also have a retaliation claim, even if not an employee).
ADA Interference Claims
In addition to the need to manage potential exposures for prohibited retaliation, employers, employment agencies and unions also should be careful to manage their exposure to potential liability arising from claims for wrongful interference and individual’s exercise of the disability rights or protections granted under the ADA.
The ADA generally prohibits disability discrimination, limits an employer’s ability to ask for medical information, requires confidentiality of medical information, and gives employees who have disabilities the right to reasonable accommodations at work absent undue hardship and like other EEO laws, prohibits retaliation. In addition to its prohibitions against retaliation, however, the ADA also more broadly prohibits “interference” with statutory rights under the ADA.
Interference is broader than retaliation. The ADA’s interference provision makes it unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise interfere with an individual’s exercise of ADA rights, or with an individual who is assisting another to exercise ADA rights.
In addition, the ADA also prohibits employers from interfering with ADA rights by doing anything that makes it more difficult for an applicant or employee to assert any of these rights such as using threats or other actions to discourage someone from asking for, or keeping, a reasonable accommodation; intimidating an applicant or employee into undergoing an unlawful medical examination; or pressuring an applicant or employee not to file a disability discrimination complaint.
Prohibited interference may be actionable under the ADA even if ineffective and even if the person subjected to intimidation goes on to exercise his ADA rights.
- While acknowledging that some employer actions may be both retaliation and interference, or may overlap with unlawful denial of accommodation, the Guidance identifies the following actions as examples of interference prohibited under the ADA:
- Coercing an individual to relinquish or forgo an accommodation to which he or she is otherwise entitled;
- Intimidating an applicant from requesting accommodation for the application process by indicating that such a request will result in the applicant not being hired;
- Threatening an employee with loss of employment or other adverse treatment if he does not “voluntarily” submit to a medical examination or inquiry that is otherwise prohibited under the statute;
- Issuing a policy or requirement that purports to limit an employee’s rights to invoke ADA protections (e.g., a fixed leave policy that states “no exceptions will be made for any reason”);
- Interfering with a former employee’s right to file an ADA lawsuit against the former employer by stating that a negative job reference will be given to prospective employers if the suit is filed; and
- Subjecting an employee to unwarranted discipline, demotion, or other adverse treatment because he assisted a coworker in requesting reasonable accommodation.
According to the EEOC, a threat does not have to be carried out in order to violate the interference provision, and an individual does not actually have to be deterred from exercising or enjoying ADA rights in order for the interference to be actionable.
Strategies To Help Deter Or Rebut Retaliation Charges
Even though individuals claiming retaliation technically bear the burden of proving more likely than not that he suffered an adverse employment action more probably than not as a result of retaliation, an employer, employment agency or union charged with illegal retaliation frequently need to rebut or undermine a claimant’s evidence of retaliation by having and introducing admissible evidence that it a non-retaliatory reason for taking the challenged action such as evidence that:
- The employer was not, in fact, aware of the protected activity;
- There was a legitimate non-retaliatory motive for the challenged action, that the employer can demonstrate, such as poor performance; inadequate qualifications for position sought; qualifications, application, or interview performance inferior to the selectee; negative job references (provided they set forth legitimate reasons for not hiring or promoting an individual); misconduct (e.g., threats, insubordination, unexcused absences, employee dishonesty, abusive or threatening conduct, or theft); or reduction in force or other downsizing;
- Similarly-situated applicants or employees who did not engage in protected activity were similarly treated;
- Where the “but-for” causation standard applies, there is evidence that the challenged adverse action would have occurred anyway, despite the existence of a retaliatory motive; or
- Other credible evidence showing a legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retalitory motive behind the action.
It is important that employer other other potential defendants in retaliation actions recognize and take appropriate steps to create and retain evidence documenting these or other legitimate business reasons justifying the action prior to taking adverse action. Many employer or other defendants charged with discrimination or retaliation discover too late that a rule of evidence commonly referred to as the “After Acquired Evidence Doctrine” often prevents an employer or other defendant from using documentation or other evidence of motive created after the adverse action occurs. Consequently, employer and other potential targets of retaliation claims before taking the adverse action would be wise to carefully collect, document and retain the evidence and analysis showing their adverse action was taken for a legitimate, nonretalitory, nondiscriminatory reason rather than for any retaliatory purpose.
Other Defensive Actions & Strategies
Beyond taking care to document and retain evidence of its legitimate motivations for taking an adverse employment action, employers, employment agencies and unions interested in avoiding or enhancing their defenses against retaliation or interference claims also may find it helpful to:
- Maintain a written, plain-language anti-retaliation and anti-interference policy that provides practical guidance on the employer’s expectations with user-friendly examples of what to do and not to do;
- Send a message from top management that retaliation and interference are prohibited and will not be tolerated;
- Ensure that top management understands and complies with policies against prohibited discrimination, retaliation and interference;
- Consistently and fairly administer all equal employment opportunity and other policies and procedures in accordance with applicable laws in a documented, defensible manner;
- Post and provide all required posters or other equal employment opportunity notices;
- Timely and accurately complete and file all required EEO reports;
- Clearly communicate orally and in writing the policy against prohibited retaliation and interference, as well as procedures for reporting, investigating and addressing concerns about potential violations of these policies in corporate policies as well as to employees complaining or participating in investigations or other protected activities;
- Conduct documented training for all managers, supervisors and other employees and agents of the employer about policies against prohibited discrimination, retaliation, and interference including, as necessary, specific education about specific behaviors or situations that could raise retaliation or interference concerns, when and how to report or respond to such concerns and other actions to take to prevent or stop potential retaliation and interference;
- Establish and administer clear policies and procedures for reporting and investigating claims or other indicators of potential prohibited employment discrimination, retaliation, interference including appropriate procedures for monitoring and protecting applicants and workers who have made claims of discrimination or have a record of involvement in activities that might qualify for corrective action;
- Review performance, compensation and other criteria for potential evidence of overt or hidden bias or other evidence of potential prohibited retaliation or interference and take documented corrective action as needed to prevent improper bias from adversely corrupting decision-making process;
- Conduct timely, well-documented investigations of all reports or other evidence of suspected discrimination, retaliation, and interference including any disciplinary, remedial or corrective action taken or foregone and the justification underlying these actions;
- Obtain and enforce contractual reassurances from recruiting, staffing and other contractors to adhere to, and cooperate with the employer in its investigation and redress of the nondiscrimination, data collection and reporting, anti-retaliation and anti-interference requirements of equal employment opportunity and other laws;
- Incorporate appropriate inquiries and other procedures for documented evaluating and monitoring that hiring, staffing, performance review, promotion, demotion, discipline, termination and other employment decisions and actions for evidence or other indicators of potential prohibited discrimination, retaliation, interference or other prohibited conduct and take corrective action as necessary based on the evidence developed; and
- Designate appropriately empowered and trained members of the management of the employer to receive and investigate complaints and other potential concerns;
Arrange for an unbiased third party review of the adverse action or the performance or other decision criteria, processes and analysis that the employer or other defendant contemplates relying on to decide and implement employment decisions for indicators of potential discriminatory, retaliatory or other illegal or undesirable biasand take corrective action as needed to address those concerns before undertaking employment actions;
- Evaluate and allocate appropriate funds within the employer’s budget to support the employer’s compliance efforts as well as to provide for the availability of sufficient funds to investigate and defend potential charges or public or private charges of illegal discrimination, retaliation or interference through the purchase of employment practices liablity or other insurance coverages or otherwise;
- If a manager or other party recommends an adverse action in the wake of an employee’s filing of an EEOC charge or participation in other protected activity, conducting or arranging for an another party to ndependently evaluate whether the adverse action is appropriate;
- Proactively seek assistance from qualified legal counsel with the design and review of policies, practices and operations, investigation and analysis of internal or external complaints or other concerns about potential prohibited discrimination, retaliation or interference, review and execution of termination, discipline or other workforce events to mitigate discrimination, retaliation or interference risks as well as the defense of EEOC or private enforcement actions; and
- Be ever diligent in your efforts to prevent, detect and redress actions or situations that could be a basis for retaliation or interference claims.
About The Author
Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a noted Texas-based management lawyer and consultant, author, lecture and policy advocate, recognized for her nearly 30-years of cutting edge management work as among the “Top Rated Labor & Employment Lawyers in Texas” by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the field of “Labor & Employment,”“Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine.
Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, past Chair and current committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, a former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and , Ms. Stamer helps management manage.
Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-year career has focused on helping organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk. Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup workforce and other legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.
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