In an environment of increasing employer caution about retaliation claims, a federal district court in Florida recently vindicated one employer’s right to take disciplinary action against an employee who had complained of discrimination but subsequently engaged in misconduct with respect to her alleged harasser.
In Lockett v. Choice Hotels Int’l, Inc., No. CV 797-T-24, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50927 (M.D. Fla. June 13, 2008), the court granted summary judgment to the employer on the plaintiff’s retaliation claims, in addition to her harassment claims, finding that the plaintiff was terminated because the employer believed that she had threatened her alleged harasser, not because she complained of harassment. After allegedly being subjected to sexual remarks and two incidents of touching by a co-worker, the employee complained to the co-worker’s supervisor, her own supervisor and a human resources manager. Shortly after the employee complained, she was called to a meeting with the human resources manager, her supervisor and the co-worker, where, the employee claimed, the co-worker called her names and acted like he was going to hit her. The plaintiff admitted that she responded, “I have a boyfriend for you,” which the employer perceived as a threat against the alleged harasser. That same day, the plaintiff was terminated for threatening her co-worker, who was also terminated as a result of his conduct.
After granting summary judgment to the employer on the employee’s harassment claims, the court addressed the retaliation claims and held that the employer had articulated a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for terminating the employee inasmuch as it believed that the employee had threatened her co-worker. The court rejected the employee’s argument that the employer incorrectly perceived her words to be a threat, stating that the issue was whether the employer thought that the employee had threatened her co-worker.
Although the employer’s decision to fire the complaining employee certainly bore some risks, it serves as a reminder that there are circumstances in which an employer’s decision to discipline such an employee, even one who has complained recently, will be upheld. Although employers must continue to proceed very cautiously in their treatment of employees who raise complaints of discrimination and/or harassment, Lockett reiterates that simply because an employee makes such a complaint, he or she is not automatically insulated from future adverse employment actions, especially where such an employee engages in misconduct.