Retaliation claims now harder to dismiss

Has your employer punished you for insisting upon your rights? A recent court ruling makes it harder for courts to dismiss employee claims of retaliation. The case arose from the employment of an African American woman at a resort hotel.  Shortly after her initial hire date, she alleges that she was called a “porch monkey” by a member of management. In response to the employee reporting the incident to human resources, the same manager allegedly threatened to complain about her to the hotel owner. After receiving the plaintiff’s complaint, the owner inquired with the manager about the plaintiff’s performance and received a bad review of her, which resulted in her firing.

The case was initially filed in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The plaintiff claimed that defendant provided a hostile work environment and also unlawfully retaliated against her under Title VII.  The defendants requested a summary judgment from the court, asserting that there was no valid legal controversy. The court agreed with the defendants and granted the summary judgment, which dismissed the case.

The plaintiff appealed to the 4th Circuit court, which initially affirmed the summary judgment. However, a subsequent en banc panel overturned the summary judgment on the issue of a hostile environment, as well as the retaliation claim.

In the 12-3 opinion, the court held that:

  • One incident of harassment can be sufficient to create a hostile work environment if it is “extremely serious.”  The determination of whether the incident meets this level is a question for the trier of fact.
  • Retaliation protection exists for the report of an isolated event if, at the time of reporting, the employee “reasonably believes that a hostile work environment is in progress.”

This ruling is a win for employees dealing with harassing behavior in the workplace.  This relaxation of the retaliation standard opens the door for negatively impacted workers to receive the compensation they deserve.

If you have concerns about retaliation in the workplace, contact our attorneys today for professional assistance.

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