You Could Be Damned If You Fire an Employee Who Has Complained of Discrimination, Even if You Think You Have Just Cause.

Posted: August 23, 2011 in Discrimination, Hiring and Firing, Lawsuits

They say that the cover up is worse than the crime. It’s equally as true that retaliation is worse than the original alleged discrimination. The City of Cambridge, Massachusetts learned this lesson the hard way, according to a recent reported decision, Monteiro v. City of Cambridge, Mass. Appeals Court, 10-P-1240 (August 15, 2011). How hard was the lesson? The total award that was affirmed by the Appeals Court was roughly $6.7 million. By some estimates, that City’s total exposure will be $10 million when additional interest and attorneys’ fees and the City’s own attorneys’ fees are added.

In 2011, virtually every employer knows and appreciates that discrimination based on race, national origin, etc. is prohibited and will subject the company to suit and damages. I have never met a manager or owner of a company who thinks that such discrimination is okay. It is obvious to all fair-minded people that such discrimination is wrong and has no place in our society.

What is less obvious to employers is that retaliation claims are at least as great a concern as discrimination cases, even where no discrimination has actually taken place. You read that right; an employer can be liable for significant damages for retaliation of a complaint, even when the original complaint itself could not be proven. Another surprising thing to employers is that an employee could recover for retaliation even if they did something else wrong prior to their termination.

You may now be scratching your head and asking, how can this be? Let’s back up a bit. Employees of employer’s of six or more employees have a right to make both internal and external (to the MCAD or EEOC) complaints about perceived discrimination. By law, employers must take those complaints seriously and they cannot retaliate against the employee for making the complaint. So long as the employee has a good faith basis for the complaint, which is a low standard, the complaint is protected activity. The complaint does not need to be ultimately meritorious. This makes sense because, in fact, most discrimination cases result in a finding of no liability. The employee still has every right to make a good faith complaint and cannot be punished for doing so.

In the Monteiro case, the jury never determined that the City engaged in prohibited discrimination, but it did find that there was retaliation that led to Ms. Monteiro’s termination. A complete description of the trial is not readily available, but based on one news report the City alleged that Monteiro falsified timesheets. Surely, if true, that would give the City a right to fire Monteiro, right?

Wrong. Monteiro’s attorney presented evidence where other employees (who did not file a complaint) committed comparatively equal wrongful acts and were not punished or terminated. This together with other evidence allowed the jury to determine whether the adverse employment actions were the result of Monteiro’s alleged wrongful acts or the result of prohibited retaliation. The jury determined the latter.

The takeaway should be obvious. You want to avoid any actions or an atmosphere that could lead to discrimination complaints in the first place, but if you do get complaints, take them very seriously. It’s important to tell your managers and maybe even co-workers not to take any adverse employment action until you consult with counsel. You may need to err on the side of giving a poorly performing employee more breaks because they filed a discrimination complaint, even if bogus. Do employees abuse the complaint procedure to avoid an expected termination? Sure, some do. But get counsel involved and tread cautiously when you have any discrimination complaints. If you have any questions about how to respond to discrimination complaints, call me at 617.338.7000.

By: Adam P. Whitney

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