Speaking out against sexual harassment is fraught with many concerns and potentially negative consequences for a lot of workers. Many justifiably fear that speaking up will negatively impact their careers, up to and possibly including the loss of their jobs. When that happens, that’s something called retaliation and it’s just as illegal under Title VII as sexual harassment is. If you’ve suffered because you spoke out, you have a right to take action. An experienced Atlanta workplace retaliation lawyer can help you to get the most out of your case.
Here’s an example of what we mean. L.A. was a woman who worked for a county sheriff’s office in suburban Atlanta for nearly two decades, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. In 2018, the sheriff decided to reassign the lieutenant to the county jail. In a meeting about the reassignment, the lieutenant told her supervisor — for the first time — about a problematic incident that occurred during her previous stint working at the jail.
Allegedly, a male coworker (who outranked her) called her into an empty office, whereupon he “began kissing her with his mouth open.” According to L.A., the incident happened without warning and, at the time, she told only her husband.
The sheriff’s office launched an investigation but the results were inconclusive. The investigation led to a second investigation based on L.A.’s “statements about superior officers’ reactions to her allegation.” This time, the investigation did result in action — the sheriff’s office demoted L.A.
During the demotion meeting, L.A. indicated that her supervisor had told her that her harasser had been the target of “other on-the-job sexual allegations.” Like the first, the third investigation was inconclusive. Unlike the first investigation, the sheriff’s office took action: they fired L.A. The entire time period from L.A.’s initial allegation to her firing spanned less than three weeks.
Many of the facts clearly worked in the employee’s favor, so the employer took the step of challenging the employee’s case at the most basic level. The sheriff’s office argued that L.A. had no reasonable basis to believe that the man’s unwanted kiss constituted illegal harassment. If that were true, then her complaint about it could not constitute protected activity and the employer’s responses could not constitute illegal retaliation in violation of Title VII.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals did not accept the employer’s argument. The court noted that, in terms of assessing the severity-or-pervasiveness standard of sexual harassment, “few types of physical contact are more invasive than an open-mouthed kiss” and courts had construed less egregious contact as sufficient to support a sexual harassment claim. Given the severity of the conduct, it was not unreasonable for L.A. to believe that the kiss constituted sexual harassment.
Because she had a reasonable belief that she’d experienced sexual harassment, her complaints were protected activities and her employer’s adverse responses could potentially amount to illegal retaliation.
Just a ‘Reasonable Belief’ of Illegal Conduct Can Be Enough
This outcome is a reminder of a very important element of retaliation law. A worker who alleges retaliation does not have to succeed in proving they were the victim of illegal harassment or discrimination. Even if the alleged misconduct fell short of violating the law, your employer’s reprisals against you due to your complaints may amount to illegal retaliation so long as your belief (that you’d experienced illegal discrimination or harassment) was a reasonable one.
No one should lose their job or otherwise be punished at work for rebuffing sexual harassment. Similarly, no one should lose their job or otherwise be punished at work because they spoke up against sexual harassment. If that has happened to you, get in touch with the dedicated Atlanta workplace retaliation attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert. We have spent countless hours fighting for workers harmed by these kinds of illegal practices, and we’re eager to get to work for you. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation.