Wednesday, August 13, 2014

No Title VII retaliation where employer investigates false EEOC charge

In this Title VII retaliation case, the Court of Appeals takes on a weird fact pattern: the plaintiffs filed an EEOC charge alleging racial discrimination, and the employer then conducted a departmental investigation because of the EEOC charge. It sounds like retaliation, but it's not.

The case is Cox v. Onondaga County Sheriff's Department, decided on July 23. The plaintiffs are white law enforcement officers who shaved their heads in solidarity with a cancer patient. The plaintiffs filed an internal complaint of racial harassment after rumors circulated in the department that they were racist skinheads. While black officers approached the bald white officers, the plaintiff did not allege in the internal complaint that the black officers were confrontational. Later on, the plaintiffs filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC. In these sworn charges, they did allege that a black officer was confrontational with them.

This lawsuit does not stem directly from that EEOC charge. Rather, plaintiffs claim retaliation under Title VII because management investigated them because of the discrepancy between the internal discrimination charge which did not allege confrontation and the EEOC charge which suggested that a black officer, Willis, gave them a hard time over being skinheads. The department investigated plaintiffs for allegedly filing a false report with the EEOC.

Normally, an employer who goes after an employee in connection with an EEOC charge would be guilty of retaliation. But this case is more complicated, which is why it took the Second Circuit (Winter, Chin and Droney) more than a year to issue a decision. The employer was justified in investigating the discrepancy between the internal harassment complaint and the more provocative EEOC charge arising from the same event. Title VII does not confer an absolute privilege immunizing the conscious filing of a false EEOC charge. While the Circuit courts and even some district courts in the Second Circuit have offered different views on whether such an investigation creates a prima facie case, the Second Circuit holds that "once the plaintiff has proffered sufficient evidence that a threat of discipline triggered by a claim of discrimination was made, a prima facie case of retaliation will usually have been established."

The existence of a prima facie case does not mean the plaintiffs can win the case. If the employer has a solid justification for investigating the plaintiffs, then the employer wins. The Second Circuit says the employer is entitled to summary judgment. The Court says the EEOC charge was "false, and seemingly intentionally so" in alleging that a particular black officer confronted the plaintiffs about being skinheads. In the context of existing racial tension in the department, an allegation like this could constitute racial harassment against the black officer. And, the Court says, "law enforcement officials are required to file reports accurately. The Department, therefore, has a greater interest in disciplining officers who do not take that obligation seriously than do most employers." In light of this, the case is dismissed.

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