Irrational Anti-Retaliation Exuberance?
Since the Supreme Court liberalized what constitutes retaliation in Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), employers have received numerous warnings about the dangers of taking action against employees who complain about harassment or discrimination. We ourselves reported in an earlier newsletter article discussing the Burlington Northern case, that employers should act cautiously before taking action against a complaining employee. We reaffirm that advice.
However, an employer simultaneously should remember that it retains the right to discipline employees who violate company rules. Indeed, in certain circumstances, an employer should act against a complaining employee who violates company policy to avoid a claim of unequal treatment by other employees in the future. This is true no matter who the complaining employee is and no matter how much current “buzz” there may be over avoiding retaliation claims.
The Lockett Case
Lockett v. Choice Hotels Intl., Inc, 8:07-cv-797-T-24-MSS (M.D. Fla. June 13, 2008), illustrates the importance of carefully balancing legal risks and enforcing corporate policies. In that case, Latrece Lockett, a worker in the reservations department of a Clarion hotel, complained to managers about inappropriate sexual conduct by a co-worker, Eric Watson. The company held an investigatory meeting with the various managers, Watson and Lockett. The meeting resulted in the termination that same day of Watson, for harassment, and also of Lockett, for threatening Watson during the meeting. During the investigatory meeting, Lockett had told Watson in a menacing tone, that “I have a boyfriend for you.” The hotel interpreted Lockett's statement as a threat in violation of its policies.
Lockett filed suit, claiming unlawful harassment and retaliation under Title VII and various related tort claims under Florida law. However, the Court dismissed all Lockett's claims. The Court found that the hotel acted reasonably both by terminating Watson in response to his harassing Lockett, and by terminating her in response to her perceived threat of violence against Watson.
- Initially, the Court found that Watson’s actions did not rise to the level of actionable harassment, among other reasons, because the behavior was not severe and pervasive and because the hotel took reasonable actions in response to Lockett’s complaints.
- More significantly for present purposes, the Court determined that no jury could find in favor of Lockett on her retaliation claim. The Court found that Lockett failed to present sufficient evidence that the hotel’s “legitimate, non-retaliatory reason” for her termination was pretextual. The Court noted that whether Lockett’s words were actually intended as a threat (she claimed they were not) was beside the point – the issue was whether the hotel could reasonably have thought they were.
While remaining vigilant about unlawful retaliation, the Lockett case reminds employers of the need to balance various employment policies in making disciplinary decisions. Where grounds exist to discipline or terminate a complaining employee, a company can – and often should – take action. What the hotel did in Lockett certainly was risky. But, at the end of the day, enforcing the hotel's policies prohibiting both harassment and threats in the workplace was the right way to go.
Lockett also serves as a reminder of the importance of having supervisors properly trained on the complexities of the laws and how to properly manage the workforce. Supervisors need to learn both when and when not to discipline. As an EEOC official commented at a recent conference, “we continue to see at the EEOC a failure of companies to train their supervisors on what actions or omissions could expose the company to liability.”