In an article published in the Spring 2017 edition of Employment Relations Today, Bass, Berry & Sims attorney Kimberly Veirs discussed ways employers can avoid retaliation claims in her article “Avoiding Workplace Retaliation: Guidance for Employers.” Workplace retaliation remains the most commonly reported complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by U.S. employees across all industries. Following a slew of these claims and high-profile court cases, the EEOC issued detailed enforcement guidance in August 2016 – its first such guidance since 1998. With workplace retaliation included as one of the commission’s substantive priorities in the Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2017-2021, the EEOC remains focused on ensuring that employees and job applicants are able to challenge discrimination without fear of retribution.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued updated guidance on workplace retaliation issues. This is the first update to the workplace retaliation policy since 1998 for what has become the most commonly reported complaint among employees in all sectors of employment in the U.S. As employers know, retaliation is taking a materially adverse action against an applicant or employee because that person engaged, or may engage, in asserting his/her rights under any of the statutes enforced by the EEOC which include:
On May 11, 2016, President Obama signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), creating a federal civil remedy for trade secrets theft, in addition to preexisting criminal penalties. This Act amends the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, which was later amended in 2012. Under these older statutes, even though both criminal and civil causes of action were available, only the U.S. Attorney General’s Office could bring those actions. The new law allows the injured party to bring a civil cause of action.
Preemption of State Law for Whistleblower Protection
Until now, trade secrets theft has largely been handled at the state level through lawsuits filed under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act that many states had passed. The DTSA does not preempt state laws in this area but rather is intended to supplement existing state law. However, employers should be aware that the DTSA does create a whistleblower immunity that does preempt any conflicting state laws. This provision protects a whistleblower from any criminal or civil liability “for the disclosure of a trade secret that (A)(i) is made in confidence to a Federal, State, or local government official, either directly or indirectly, or to an attorney; and (ii) solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law; or (B) is made in a complaint or other document filed in a lawsuit or other proceeding, if such filing is made under seal.” This provision also allows for disclosure of trade secrets in an anti-retaliation lawsuit against an employer so long as the employee makes the disclosure only to the employee’s attorney and so long as any court filing keeps the trade secrets under seal .
Whether the plaintiff is actually engaged in “protected conduct” is always a key question when defending a retaliatory discharge claim. This certainly is true when such a claim is brought under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX).
On August 8, 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals clarified the nature of the protected activity a successful SOX retaliatory discharge plaintiff must plead in order to survive a motion to dismiss. See Nielsen v. AECOM Technology Corp., Case No. 13-235-cv (August 8, 2014, 2nd Circuit).
Nielsen, a fire engineering manager, alleged that he was fired in retaliation for threatening to resign if the company continued to tolerate the conduct of one of his subordinates whom he claimed was allowing fire safety designs to be marked as approved without the subordinate actually having reviewed the plan. Continue Reading Second Circuit Clarifies “Protected Activity” for Sarbanes-Oxley Act Retaliatory Discharge Claims
A federal appeals court recently held that a job applicant cannot sue a prospective employer for retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
In the case, Dellinger v. Science Applications International Corp., the employee had to complete a security clearance form after a conditional offer of employment. The form asked the applicant if she had been involved in any non-criminal court actions. The applicant disclosed she had sued her former employer for wage/hour violations. The employer then withdrew the offer of employment. As a result, the job applicant sued for retaliation.
In ruling that the applicant did not have a claim, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court for appeals from Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia), explained that the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA applies only to actual employers, not prospective employers. The Court recognized the compelling argument of the job applicant but still held that extending the law as requested would go beyond the law’s plain language. An applicant who never began or performed any work could not, by the language of the FLSA, be an ’employee,’ the Court said.