Seyfarth Synopsis: For the first time since 1998, the EEOC has updated its enforcement guidance on retaliation claims brought under the various anti-discrimination laws the Commission is charged with enforcing.  Observing that retaliation is now the single largest category of claims presented in its charges, the EEOC’s new enforcement guidance advocates expansive interpretations of law to broaden retaliation protections for federal and private sector applicants and employees, creating new burdens on employers who decide to attempt to comply with this new EEOC directive.

Making good on its stated objective to transform itself from a “nationwide law firm” to a “national law enforcement agency,”[1] the EEOC on August 29, 2016 issued its new Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues along with a Small Business Fact Sheet.  After a period of public comment on its Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation, see here, the EEOC has now asserted even stronger, more expansive positions than it first proposed on defining actionable retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Title V of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 501), the Equal Pay Act (EPA), and Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).  While the Guidance itself does not have the force of law, it provides employers with a valuable roadmap of the EEOC’s agenda both in pursuing workplace retaliation claims and in attempting to make law in the courts.

The EEOC now clearly positions itself as interpreting anti-discrimination laws and federal decisions as it sees fit to serve its enforcement objectives: “This document sets for the Commission’s interpretation of the law of retaliation and related issues. . . . Where the lower courts have not consistently applied the law or the EEOC’s interpretation of the law differs in some respect, the guidance sets forth the EEOC’s considered position and explains its analysis.” (Emphasis added.)  Rather than enforce existing law as interpreted by courts throughout the country, the EEOC supports its nationwide objective to expand employee protections by relying on court decisions favoring its approach, while at the same time rejecting court decisions that do not.

What Is Retaliation?

The Guidance says that the preconditions to a retaliation claim include: 1)protected activity being either “participation in an EEO process” or “opposition to discrimination”; 2) materially adverse action taken by the employer; and 3) a requisite level of causal connection between the protected activity and materially adverse action.  The EEOC considers these three elements to be fluid concepts, to be read and enforced expansively.

The Guidance also focuses on the concept of “anticipatory retaliation” or “pre-emptive retaliation” articulated by the Seventh and Tenth Circuits, that retaliation occurs “…when an employer takes a materially adverse action because an individual has engaged in, or may engage in, activity in furtherance of the EEO laws the Commission enforces” (emphasis added, citing Beckel v. Wal-Mart Assocs., Inc., 301 F.3d 621, 624 (7th Cir. 2002); Sauers v. Salt Lake Cty., 1 F.3d 1122, 1128 (10th Cir. 1993)). Employers concerned about the EEOC’s scrutiny now must be vigilant to document or otherwise be able to prove that all aspects of performance management – including, but not limited to, evaluations, warnings, reprimands, hiring, promotions, compensation, terminations and references – is conducted without regard to whether an applicant or employee may be about to participate in an EEO process or oppose discrimination.

What Is Protected Activity?

Participation In An EEO Process.  The Guidance restates the EEOC’s longstanding position that participation in an EEO process is protected whether or not an individual has a reasonable, good faith belief that the allegations are or could become unlawful. Conceding that the Supreme Court has not addressed this question, the EEOC nonetheless rejects decisions by the Seventh and Eighth Circuits that hold that the anti-retaliation protections of Title VII do not extend to individuals making false claims to the EEOC. (See Gilooly v. Mo. Dep’t of Health & Senior Servs., 421 F.3d 734, 240 (8th Cir. 2005); Mattson v. Caterpillar, Inc., 359 F.3d 885, 891 (7th Cir. 2004)).

Opposition To Discrimination.  The Guidance provides that “opposition to discrimination” must be “reasonable” in manner to receive protection. The Guidance then qualifies this position by observing that that there is overlap between what constitutes “participation in an EEO process” and “opposition to discrimination.”  Relying on Sixth Circuit case law the Guidance provides, self-servingly, that the EEOC is afforded great discretion to determine what constitutes protected activity. Employers should be on the lookout that the reasonableness of behaviors alleged to be in opposition to discrimination may be eroded as a defense to retaliation claims.

The Guidance also states that the EEOC rejects and will challenge what some courts have dubbed the “manager rule”; namely, that managers must step outside their management roles and take a position adverse to the employer in order to engage in the protected activity of opposition to discrimination.

What Is A Materially Adverse Action?

With respect to the requirement that an individual suffer a materially adverse action at the hands of an employer, the EEOC continues to broaden the actions that in its view constitute “materially adverse actions” as to include one-off incidents, warnings, dissuasive activities that do not directly affect employment, and activities outside of the workplace that may dissuade an applicant, employee or former employee from engaging in protected activity.  Further, actions purportedly taken against close family members and fiancés on account of an applicant, employee or former employee engaging in protected activity also will be challenged as retaliatory.

What Is Causation?

While the Guidance acknowledges that the Supreme Court has held that the standard for proof of retaliation under Title VII is that “but for” the a retaliatory motive, the employer would not have taken the adverse action, the Guidance introduces the “motivating factor” standard for federal sector Title VII and ADEA retaliation cases, prohibiting retaliation if it is a mere motivating factor behind an adverse action.  The Guidance provides that suspicious timing, incriminating oral or written statements, evidence of how comparable individuals were treated differently, and inconsistent or shifting explanations of the adverse action all can support a finding of retaliation, while the employer’s ignorance of the protected activity or having a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action may support a finding that no unlawful retaliation has occurred.

Related Issues – Requests For Accommodation

The Guidance discusses that, in addition to retaliation, the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits interference with an applicant, employee or former employee’s rights under the ADA, including assisting another in the exercise of their rights under the ADA.  The Guidance suggests that the EEOC will aggressively challenge conduct allegedly interfering with requests for accommodation for disability under the ADA, as well as requests for religious accommodation under Title VII.

Implications For Employers

While the Guidance states that “[e]mployers remain free to discipline or terminate employees for legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons, notwithstanding any prior protected activity,” employers have no cause for reassurance from the EEOC.  The Guidance signals that the EEOC is broadening its interpretation of retaliation to include protection for activity that has not yet occurred, possible protection for “opposition” activities that may not be reasonable, and protection to the applicant and  employee who may engage in protective activity in the future.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.