On Monday, August 10, the Fourth Circuit rejected the application of the “manager rule” in the Title VII context, finding it “would discourage . . . employees from voicing concerns about workplace discrimination.”
The so-called “manager rule” is a doctrine developed in federal anti-retaliation cases that finds that a manager’s disagreement with an employer’s actions, expressed in the course of performing his or her regular job duties, is not a protected activity under Title VII or the Fair Labor Standards Act. Applied in a limited number of Circuits, the rule purports to address a concern that, if counseling and communicating complaints are part of a manager’s regular duties, then nearly every activity in the normal course of a manager’s job would potentially be protected activity, thus turning every managerial termination into a “litigation minefield.”
The Plaintiff in DeMasters v. Carilion Clinic et al. was an “employee assistance program consultant” for a behavioral health unit of Carilion clinic, and was allegedly terminated for acting “contrary to his employer’s best interest” and failing to take the “pro-employer side” when he helped file an internal complaint on behalf of a Carilion employee who told Demaster that her supervisor had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct in her presence. The Plaintiff allegedly criticized the employer’s handling of the investigation and the hostility it generated amongst coworkers. The District Court dismissed Demasters’ Complaint, finding that “no individual activity in which [Plaintiff] engaged by itself constituted protected oppositional conduct and that the so-called ‘manager rule,’ in any event, prevented an employee whose job responsibilities included reporting discrimination claims from seeking protection under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.”
The Fourth Circuit reversed. While the Fourth Circuit made no findings with respect to the manager rule’s application to the FLSA, it found “[n]othing in the language of Title VII indicates that the statutory protection accorded an employee’s opposition conduct turns on the employee’s job description or that Congress intended to excise a large category of workers from its anti-retaliation protections.” The Fourth Circuit also found support in Supreme Court precedent favoring broad protection from retaliation and the encouragement of employee communication regarding discrimination.
While this may sound like bad news for employers in the Fourth Circuit, it should not change the normal operating procedure – employers should always ensure that termination and other adverse employment actions are supported by legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons.