A recent case from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals clarifies whether an employee’s verbal complaint to her supervisor about that supervisor’s sexual harassment can, by itself, be enough to constitute engaging in “protected activity” under Title VII. The case ruled that such informal complaints do qualify because any opposition to an unlawful employment practice, such as sexual harassment, is protected, and the law defines “oppose” broadly. This case stands as a clear warning to Tennessee employers that they cannot evade Title VII liability simply because workers do not follow formal procedures for opposing a supervisor’s sexually harassing conduct.
The employer in the case was New Breed Logistics, which operated a warehouse in Memphis. Three female workers in the warehouse’s receiving department accused a supervisor in their department, James Calhoun, of a barrage of incidents of sexual harassment. The employees stated that they repeatedly told Calhoun to stop, but he refused, stating that he would never get into trouble and that he “ran this” department. A male forklift driver backed up significant portions of the women’s assertions.
Within a narrow window of time, New Breed fired all three of the women and the forklift driver. Some time later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued New Breed for violating Title VII. When the case went to the trial court, the employer asked the court to award a judgment in its favor as a matter of law. The EEOC could not maintain a Title VII lawsuit, New Breed argued, since the three women never engaged in protected conduct under the law, and the EEOC could not prove that the employer fired the women because of their protected activities.
The trial court ruled against New Breed, and a jury awarded the workers approximately $1.5 million. New Breed appealed but was unsuccessful. With regard to the matter of the women’s engaging in protected activity, that issue came down to whether or not the women’s acts of telling the supervisor to stop harassing them constituted protected conduct under Title VII. The 6th Circuit decided that it did. Complaining to a harassing supervisor regarding that supervisor’s conduct was a protected action as set out in the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII. The law says that “it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any …employee… because [the employee] opposed” an unlawful employment practice. “Oppose” in this context is very broad. It can include anything from filing a formal, written complaint with the EEOC to making informal, verbal protests to immediate supervisors.
Under this analysis, the New Breed workers’ actions were clearly covered. Sexual harassment is undoubtedly an unlawful employment practice. Verbally complaining to a supervisor about the harassment, even when that supervisor was himself the harasser, qualifies because “the opposition clause’s broad language confers protection to this conduct.” The opposition clause does not restrict to whom a worker may complain about sexual harassment. It would be unfair, and contrary to the purpose of the law, to consider a complaint protected only if the worker made that objection to a specific person whom the employer picked.
The appeals court also upheld the trial court’s decision that the terminations were caused by the women’s protected activities. Calhoun personally fired one of the women. Although another supervisor terminated the other two, Calhoun held considerable influence over their fates, engineering their transfers to another department and then persuading their new supervisor to terminate them. Regardless of who directly fires a worker, the law will look at the person who “is the driving force behind the employment action.” If that “driving force” acts with a retaliatory bias, the workers’ Title VII claim can survive.
Whether you are an employer or employee in Tennessee, it is important to understand exactly how broad the protections offered to workers by Title VII are. For up-to-date knowledge and reliable advocacy when it comes to your sexual harassment case, the skilled Tennessee employment law attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert are equipped and ready to help.
To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call (877) 986-5529.
More blog posts:
What Conduct Is (And Is Not) Grounds for a Federal Title VII Action in Georgia, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 23, 2015
Federal Court in Georgia Grants Motion for Summary Judgment in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, July 21, 2014