Personal Knowledge Of Protected Status Not Required For Retaliation Claim

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently revived an engineer’s job bias claim, determining that it was error for the trial court to require the jury find “personal knowledge of an alleged protected activity” in order to establish causation in a retaliation claim. The court also explained that it is not necessary for an employee to show that an employer’s reason for taking adverse action was “pretext” to prove discrimination and cautioned District Courts against using jury instructions with this language.

Title VII and other discrimination laws prohibit retaliation in the workplace. “Retaliation” refers to almost any negative action by your employer against you in response to your complaint about discrimination, or for participating as a witness in someone else’s discrimination case.

In Henry v. Wyeth Pharms. Inc., an employee – Howard Henry – filed a claim for race discrimination based on several different claims of bias. In a separate cause of action for retaliation, Henry asserted that he was demoted as a result of his discrimination claim. The trial court instructed the jury that “personal knowledge of an alleged protected activity” was needed to establish causation. The 2d Circuit disagreed, finding the instruction constituted reversible error.

Writing for the court, Judge Pierre N. Leval noted, “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.” As such, an employee need not prove that the specific person who carried out the adverse action knew of the employee’s protected status. Rather, a causal connection is demonstrated when the agent who decides to impose the adverse action – such as firing or demotion – does so at the encouragement of a superior who does have knowledge of the protected status.

Additionally, the trial court also erred in instructing the jury on the concept of “pretext.” Pretext typically implies a “conscious intention” to deceive. Leval explained that Title VII does not require employees show that an employer’s stated reason for an adverse action constituted “pretext.” As such, Leval cautioned district courts not to provide this instruction in the future.

Discrimination – and retaliation based on complaints of discrimination – are strictly prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When an employer acts adversely toward you, either directly or via an agent, as the result of your filing a complaint for discrimination, you may have a claim for retaliation.

For more information, please contact Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, a Georgia law firm dedicated to protecting worker’s rights.