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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
As part of our commitment to assist and educate employees in fighting back against the abusive employment practices of employers, we offer a broad range of information about employment law issues in our employment blog

Are Employees Protected From Retaliation When Reporting Harassment Towards Other Employees?

Harassment form

Employment discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (§ 1981), the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, protect employees from retaliation when they oppose discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, or age.  In the majority of cases, an employee’s opposition to discrimination or harassment in the workplace takes place under circumstances where the employee makes a complaint about discrimination or harassment against him or her in the workplace.  However, employees are not simply protected from retaliation for complaining about discrimination or harassment they personally experience in the workplace.  Rather, employees are also protected from retaliation when they oppose or complain about discrimination or harassment other employees in the workplace.  “Under the civil rights laws,” as explained by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Matthews v. City of Maple Heights, 9 F.3d 108 (6th Cir. 1993), an employer is prohibited from retaliating against “an employee for attempting to protest discriminatory conditions of employment.”  In Sayger v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 735 F.3d 1025 (8th Cir. 2013), the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether Title VII and § 1981 protect employees from retaliation when they report having witnesses racially harassing behavior against other employees in the workplace.

Employee Reports Racial Harassment Against Others

In that case, Tony Sayger (Sayger), who is white, was employed as a maintenance worker by Riceland Foods, Inc. (Riceland).  During his employment, Sayger heard a supervisor frequently use racially derogatory language about African-American employees, including the use of racial slurs.  When Sayger asked the supervisor to stop, the supervisor responded to Sayger with a racial slur indicating that he would not stop.  Two other white employees, Rick Turney (Turney) and Randy Bennett (Bennett), complained to the human resources department about the supervisor’s use of racial slurs.  In response to their complaints, the human resources department concluded that the supervisor had not committed any offense.  After Riceland failed to respond to his second complaint about the supervisor’s racial slurs, Turney made a third complaint.  In Turney’s third complaint, Sayger was listed as a witness and was interviewed during the course of the human resources department’s investigation.  During the interview, Sayger reported that he had witnessed the supervisor’s offensive conduct.  In response to Turney’s third complaint, the company required the supervisor to attend diversity training but imposed no disciplinary action against him. 

Shortly after the complaints were made, Sayger, Turney, and Bennett were all terminated.  Turney and Bennett filed a retaliation lawsuit against Riceland and prevailed in a jury trial.  In his case against Riceland, Sayger claimed that Riceland violated § 1981 by firing him in retaliation for opposing the supervisor’s racially harassing behavior in the workplace.  The jury returned a verdict for Sayger on his § 1981, awarding him $30,000 in compensatory damages and $30,608 in back pay.  On appeal, Riceland argued that Sayger’s retaliation claim should have been dismissed by the trial court and never been submitted to a jury for resolution because Sayger’s conduct in serving as a witness in the internal investigation did not come within the scope of § 1981’s protection against retaliation.

At the outset of its opinion, the Eighth Circuit explained that the scope of § 1981’s protection against retaliation is the same as Title VII’s.  Thus, when an employee is protected from retaliation by § 1981, the employee is also protected from retaliation by Title VII.  Under Title VII, the appellate court pointed out, employees are protected from retaliation when they act to vindicate the rights of minorities.  The Eighth Circuit found that Sayger was protected from retaliation by Title VII and § 1981 by serving as witness in the internal investigation because in reporting the supervisor’s offensive conduct, Sayger “demonstrated his opposition” to a civil rights violation and “acted to vindicate the rights of minorities.”  Thus, the appellate court concluded that Sayger “should therefore receive the same protection against retaliation as the person who filed the original complaint.”  “If employees who give evidence or respond to questions during internal inquiries into alleged discrimination are not protected from retaliation,” the Eighth Circuit reasoned, “it would impede any efforts to address discrimination.”      

On appeal, Riceland also argued that Sayger’s retaliation claim should have been dismissed by the trial court and never been submitted to a jury for resolution because Sayger failed to establish a causal connection between his opposition to the supervisor’s racially harassing behavior and his termination.  In rejecting this argument, the Eighth Circuit found that Sayger had “presented sufficient evidence of causation for a jury to find that he would not have been dismissed had he not served as a witness.”  The appellate court pointed to evidence showing that the supervisor made statements about “troublemakers” being gone from Riceland and the same managers who defended the supervisor or failed to investigate the complaints were involved in the decisions to fire Turney, Bennett, and Sayger.  The Eighth Circuit further explained that “the evidence shows that Riceland viewed the complaints about [the supervisor] as a greater problem than his own behavior.”    

Protection From Retaliation For Speaking Up

The decision in Riceland establishes that employees are protected from retaliation when they oppose or complain about discrimination or harassment against other employees in the workplace.  The decision in Riceland further establishes that employees are protected from retaliation when they report having witnessed discrimination or harassment during an employer’s internal investigation into allegations of discrimination or harassment.  As the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Crawford v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson Cty., Tenn., 555 U.S. 271 (2009), “nothing in [Title VII] requires a freakish rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when her boss asks a question.”  Otherwise, the Supreme Court observed, “prudent employees would have good reason to keep quiet about Title VII offenses against themselves or against others.”    

Consultation With Employment Law Attorney   

We have extensive experience representing employees who have been retaliated against for opposing discrimination or harassment in the workplace.  If you have been retaliated against, or have questions about participating as a witness in an employer’s internal investigation into allegations of discrimination or harassment, please contact our office for a free consultation.

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