Worker Must Show Supervisor Knew of Complaint to Prove Retaliation

By Jeffrey Rhodes May 27, 2020
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An employee's claim that her supervisor fired her in retaliation for protected conduct did not prove the supervisor's knowledge of her recent discrimination complaint and so was properly dismissed, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Financial Asset Management Systems Inc., a debt-collection agency in Georgia, hired the plaintiff, a black female operations manager, in 2009. The CEO of the company supervised the plaintiff and promoted her to director of operations in 2010.

About two years later, the CEO held feedback sessions with the plaintiff in which, she claimed, he screamed, kicked chairs and banged the table. In response, the plaintiff filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the CEO discriminated against her based on her race and gender. The plaintiff alleged that the CEO did not behave that way toward some of her white male co-workers.

The plaintiff's EEOC complaint was investigated, and the company successfully mediated the complaint with the plaintiff. About 16 months later, the CEO had an executive staff meeting, during which he allegedly screamed, yelled and belittled the plaintiff in front of her peers. After the meeting, the plaintiff made a complaint to the vice president of human resources.

The plaintiff claimed that the CEO was targeting her, a black woman, and he did not target a white male colleague. She claimed the CEO also preferred another white colleague whose performance allegedly wasn't as good as hers. She told HR that she needed to take at least two days off to take care of her health.

The vice president of HR e-mailed the CEO and stated that the plaintiff felt that she was being targeted for criticism and wanted to take time off. The CEO met with the vice president of HR and talked with her, expressing frustration with the plaintiff for refusing to answer his calls following the executive staff meeting. The CEO then signed a termination letter and mailed it to the plaintiff two days after she met with HR to complain about discrimination.

At about the same time, the plaintiff saw a therapist, who recommended that she follow up with a physician but never told her not to work or determined that she was incapable of working.

The plaintiff sued the company and the CEO for interference and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. The company and CEO filed motions for summary judgment against the plaintiff's claims. These were granted by the district court, based on the absence of any protected conduct under the FMLA and the lack of evidence that the CEO knew the plaintiff had made a discrimination complaint before he fired her.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit upheld the dismissal of the FMLA claim, finding that the therapist was not a medical provider and the plaintiff had not established a serious health condition under the FMLA.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

Regarding the retaliation claim, the 11th Circuit majority determined that there was no evidence the CEO knew that the plaintiff claimed race or gender discrimination in her HR complaint. The plaintiff argued that the CEO must have known of the race- and gender-based nature of her complaint, particularly since he fired her so quickly after her complaint. The plaintiff also argued that the CEO must have known because of her earlier EEOC charge against him alleging discrimination based on race and gender.

The 11th Circuit majority found that the first complaint happened so many months before the plaintiff's firing that it could not support an inference of retaliation. A dissenting judge disagreed and found that the plaintiff claimed she was targeted shortly before she was fired, which harkened back to the basis of her race- and gender-discrimination charges filed with the EEOC 16 months earlier.

The 11th Circuit majority affirmed the district court's decision and dismissed the case.

Martin v. Financial Asset Management Systems Inc., 11th Cir., No. 17-14488 (May 14, 2020).

Professional Pointer: A retaliation claim requires the decision-maker's knowledge of the plaintiff's discrimination complaint before the decision-maker takes an adverse action. So employers might avoid retaliation claims by shielding decision-makers from involvement in employees' complaints. Nonetheless, a court may still infer knowledge by a decision-maker based on prior complaints or other circumstances.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.

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