In a recent decision, Nazarie Anderson v. Emory Healthcare Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Emory Healthcare Inc. (Emory), who had defended against a former employee’s retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3. Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for participating in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing related to Title VII. Such protections extend to an employee who makes false statements in the context of those investigations, proceedings or hearings.

In this case, the former employee, Ms. Anderson, was a senior-level manager. She argued she had been subjected to retaliation when she was terminated for her role in an incident of workplace discrimination involving another former employee, Ms. Gutierrez, who was her indirect report.

The initial discrimination complaint involved Ms. Gutierrez requesting not to work on Sundays on religious grounds. This request was denied by Ms. Anderson. Ms. Gutierrez then filed an internal complaint of harassment and religious discrimination with Emory. After receiving the complaint, Emory’s HR department directed Ms. Anderson to inform Ms. Gutierrez her accommodation request would be granted. Ms. Anderson agreed to do so, but never did. Ms. Gutierrez then resigned and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint, resulting in an EEOC investigation.

Ms. Anderson’s only involvement in the EEOC investigation was to forward an electronically transcribed voicemail from Ms. Gutierrez to HR. That voicemail implied Ms. Gutierrez’s willingness to work on Sundays. Emory relied on this voicemail to take the position that Ms. Gutierrez’s position had never been threatened. Ms. Anderson was not otherwise interviewed, deposed, or formally questioned regarding the charge, nor did she submit any written statement.

In defending the EEOC complaint Emory learned that Ms. Anderson denied Ms. Gutierrez’s accommodation request and even threatened to fire her. Emory ultimately terminated Ms. Anderson’s employment for denying the accommodation request in violation of its anti-discrimination and harassment policy and for knowingly giving incorrect information to the HR department when it was preparing its position statement to the EEOC.

Ms. Anderson then also filed an EEOC charge. The EEOC issued her a right to sue, which she did, arguing that she was fired in retaliation for participating in the EEOC investigation. Emory moved for summary judgment and won. Ms. Anderson appealed.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reviewed the burden-shifting framework for Title VII retaliation claims. Under this framework, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of retaliation, following which the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the retaliation. If the employer does so, the plaintiff must then show that employer’s reason for terminating the employee was a pretext to mask retaliation.

On this point, the Eleventh Circuit found that Emory articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons for terminating Ms. Anderson based on its good faith belief that she violated its anti-discrimination policy and that she provided false information during Emory’s internal investigation. Ms. Anderson failed to show these reasons were pretextual.  

This decision is a helpful clarification of retaliation principles under Title VII. An employee cannot cloak prior misconduct by repeating it or speaking to it in a protected proceeding. While Ms. Anderson’s actions in an EEOC proceeding may be protected from retaliation, Emory could still, in good faith, discipline or terminate for misconduct that occurred entirely outside that proceeding.

Thanks to Curtis Armstrong for assistance in drafting this article

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