Under federal law, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee based on various protected characteristics, including race and gender. Those same laws make prohibit retaliation against an employee for "opposing," or complaining about, such discrimination. Complaints can include both formal and informal complaints, and can be made either internally (within the company) or by reporting a violation to an outside agency, such as the EEOC. Recently, a new potential type of retaliation claim has been addressed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
What does it mean to oppose an unlawful employment practice?
Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who "oppose any practice made an unlawful employment practice" by law. Because of this, any employee who takes a stand against actions or policies in violation of Title VII is participating in a protected activity – and, as such, is protected against retaliation for their actions. The issue in the Fourth Circuit case, DeMasters v. Carilion Clinic, involved retaliation against managers who, on a daily basis as part of their job duties, handle discrimination and harassment issues. The question in that case was whether these particular managers are also protected by Title VII's anti-retaliation provision.
Understanding the "Manager's Rule"
In other situations, outside the context of Title VII claims, many courts have adopted the "manager's rule." This rule excludes certain employees whose responsibilities include investigating discrimination claims, overseeing legal compliance or, as in the DeMasters case, "counseling and communicating [employee] complaints." The manager's rule is most often applied along with federal laws governing protection from retaliation, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA").
The Fourth Circuit's Recent Decision
The Fourth Circuit's holding in the DeMasters case is very important to the body of retaliation case law. The Court held that managers who handle discrimination and harassment issues within a company can bring retaliation claims under Title VII for the work they do in this regard. The complaint in that case was initially dismissed by the district court based on the fact that the manager's alleged protected activity was "within his required job duties," and therefore, presumably, not protected; however, the Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding that Title VII protects employees from a far wider range retaliatory actions than those discussed in the FLSA. Furthermore, the Court found that Congress demonstrated no intent to deny anti-retaliation protection to certain employees based on their work responsibilities.
What Does This Decision Mean?
The point of the Court's decision is that employees who are responsible for investigating discrimination or harassment claims must feel free to perform their job duties without fear of retaliation, even if their decision ultimately goes against the employer. In cases like DeMasters, when a manager helps another employee file an internal sexual harassment complaint or disagrees with how the HR department handled the complaint, their actions remain protected under Title VII, at least in the Fourth Circuit – because they are part of the manager's responsibilities.