Thursday, June 26, 2008

A discrimination complaint can take on a life of its own

In retaliation cases filed under the employment discrimination laws, the plaintiff can win the case by showing that management punished him for complaining about discrimination. In that sense, the cover-up can be worse than the crime, and the retaliation itself gives the plaintiff two cases: one for the initial discrimination and another for the retaliation. The tricky part for the plaintiff is sometimes proving that the right people knew about the initial discrimination complaint. If the decisionmaker was not unaware of the complaint, he can't be responsible for retaliation.

The Second Circuit, however, holds that "general corporate knowledge" is enough to prove that the right people knew about the initial discrimination complaint. The idea is that a complaint to one member of management will become known to others in the management hierarchy. In other words, the discrimination complaint can take on a life of its own. This makes sense. When someone in the workplace complains about discrimination, anyone of importance in the workplace will likely find out about it. Discrimination complaints are not like other complaints. Discrimination complaints represent fighting words, and management not only takes them seriously, they may take it personally.

This played out in a case that went to trial in the Eastern District of New York, where the judge dismissed one of the claims because certain decisionmakers were not aware of the plaintiff's discrimination complaint, which got them off the hook for retaliation. The Second Circuit reversed, in an unpublished summary ruling.

The case is Triola v. Snow, decided on June 26. Summarizing the reasoning of the trial court, the Court of Appeals (Straub, Sack and Kravitz) noted:

The district court found that there was "no evidence that Joseph King, Mr. Triola's immediate supervisor, was aware of the informal complaint that [Mr. Triola] filed on May 8, 1998 or of his meeting with the EEO counselor on that date." Rather, the court, relying on Mr. King's affidavit, found that Mr. King first became aware of Mr. Triola's complaint on November 25, 1998. Accordingly, on the ground that Mr. Triola had failed to establish the knowledge requirement of a prima facie case of retaliation, the court dismissed Mr. Triola's claims of retaliation prior to November 25, 1998.

However, the Court reiterated its longstanding rule that "neither this nor any other circuit has ever held that, to satisfy the knowledge requirement, anything more is necessary than general corporate knowledge that the plaintiff has engaged in a protected activity. Rather, the knowledge element is satisfied when a plaintiff has complained directly to another employee whose job it was to investigate and resolve such complaints."

Since the plaintiff in this case met with an in-house Equal Employment Opportunity officer to complain informally about discrimination, we may assume that the complaint made its way to the decisionmakers -- in particular a Mr. King -- who subjected the plaintiff to an adverse employment action. Since the district court ignored the Second Circuit's rule about "general corporate knowledge" governing discrimination complaints, the case returns to the trial court to "consider whether Mr. Triola proved a causal connection between his protected activity and the adverse action, and whether retaliation played a motivating role in Mr. King's action."

No comments: