11th Circuit: Lawyer Who Participated in Former Co-Worker’s Lawsuit Allowed to Pursue Retaliation Case

Employers have a reasonably wide latitude in the non-discriminatory reasons that they state as bases for terminating employees. That latitude does not, however, extend to punishing an employee for “disruptive conduct” if the conduct in question was testifying on behalf of a co-worker in her Title VII discrimination case. A recent ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a terminated employee to pursue his retaliation claim. Testifying in a Title VII case is a protected activity under the law, and punishing him under the guise of “disruptive conduct” for giving unflattering testimony about his employer in his deposition raises a potential issue of retaliation.

The employee in the case was James Long, who had worked as an attorney for the Alabama Department of Human Resources since 1983 and who, by 2006, served directly under the department’s top lawyer, Sharon Ficquette. In 2009, though, Long and a subordinate, Carolyn Rawls, received written reprimands, Rawls for failing to do her job properly and Long for failing to supervise Rawls appropriately. Rawls later resigned and launched a discrimination lawsuit against the department. Long gave a deposition in Rawls’ case, criticizing his employer and accusing Ficquette of intentionally discriminating against both Rawls and himself.

A few months later, the department terminated Long. The stated reasons were numerous, including Long’s inappropriate use of department resources, such as using his work computer for personal matters. The employer also cited Long’s “disruptive conduct” in the Rawls litigation. Long sued as a result of his termination, alleging race discrimination and retaliation. The trial court, after a motion by the department, issued summary judgment in the department’s favor on both the discrimination and the retaliation claims.

On appeal, though, Long achieved a partial success. The appeals court upheld the ruling on the discrimination claim but revived Long’s retaliation case. The law requires several types of proof for an employee to succeed in a discrimination claim like the one Long advanced. Although Long was definitely a member of a protected class and had suffered an adverse employment action, that was only half of the necessary proof. The law also required evidence that he was treated differently from a similarly situated non-minority employee, which Long’s case completely lacked. Also, Long’s case lacked proof that the department’s stated reasons were a pretext for discrimination. One major detriment to Long’s case was the fact that the state hired an African-American to replace Long in his position.

The retaliation claim, however, was viable. Long’s evidence raised an inference of retaliation. His supervisors began investigating him, including reviewing his work emails, less than one month after he gave his first deposition in Rawls’ lawsuit. A reasonable jury, the 11th Circuit concluded, could decide that this investigation was the result of Long’s accusations against Ficquette, not legitimate work-related reasons.

Further strengthening Long’s retaliation case was the report of the hearing officer who recommended his termination. The law is clear that giving testimony “in a Title VII proceeding constitutes participation protected against retaliation.” In Long’s case, the hearing officer recommending his termination cited “disruptive conduct” as a reason, with the disruptive conduct in this case being Long’s testimony on Rawls’ behalf in her discrimination case against the department, exactly the type of protected activity covered under the law.

Whether you’re an employee who has been punished for testifying in another person’s Title VII case, an employer wrongly accused of race discrimination, or any other employee or employer involved in a discrimination matter, you need counsel on which you can rely. The hardworking Georgia retaliation attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert can aid you in pursuing a fair and just outcome in your Title VII or other discrimination case.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Sixth Circuit Rules that Employee’s Evidence Raises Potential Claim for Retaliation, But Not Constructive Discharge, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, June 14, 2016

Federal Court in Tennessee Denies Summary Judgment Motion in Retaliation Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, April 18, 2014

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