Anti-discrimination laws command that “thou shall not retaliate…” The recent ruling in EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc., Case No. 15-CV-01416 (D. Conn Apr. 12, 2016), is a case study in how employers can be taken to task for allegedly retaliating against workers who claim discrimination.
In this case, the EEOC brought an ADA action against the employer defendant, alleging it retaliated against an employee by sending a letter, which identified the employee and discussed his discrimination charge, to 146 other Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc. (“DZNPS”) employees who belonged to the same union. The EEOC also alleged that the letter interfered with the rights of 146 current and former employees under the ADA to communicate with the EEOC regarding potential unlawful discrimination. After defendant moved to dismiss the ADA retaliation and interference claims, Judge Victor A. Bolden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut denied the employer’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that the EEOC’s allegations were sufficient to state plausible claims for retaliation and interference under Sections 503(a) and 503(b) of the ADA.
This ruling serves as a cautionary tale for employers facing discrimination charges brought by employees, and shows the breadth of anti-discrimination prohibitions on retaliation.
It illustrates how widespread internal communication regarding such charges could potentially be viewed as retaliation or interference under the ADA in the context of a motion to dismiss.
In October 2012, a DZNPS employee, who was a member of Local 35 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (“Local 35”) filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that his employer failed to accommodate his disability reasonably and unlawfully terminated his employment. In March 2014, the EEOC sought information from DZNPS as part of its investigation of the employee’s charge, including the names and contact information of other electricians who had worked for DZNPS at the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut in the fall of 2012.
In June 2014, before providing the requested information to the EEOC, DZNPS sent a letter to approximately 146 individuals, all of whom were members of Local 35 and all of whom had worked or continued to work for DZNPS. In the June 2014 letter, DZNPS identified the allegedly aggrieved employee by name and indicated that he had filed a charge of discrimination on the basis of disability. The letter identified his union local, the medical restrictions on his ability to work, and the accommodation he had requested. It further informed the recipients of their right to refuse to speak to the EEOC investigator and offered them the option to have DZNPS counsel present if they chose to speak to the EEOC. Id. at 2-3.
On May 20, 2015, the EEOC issued a Letter of Determination to DZNPS, finding reasonable cause to believe that the ADA had been violated. Following unsuccessful conciliation, the EEOC filed a complaint on September 28, 2015. The EEOC alleged that since at least June 2014, DZNPS engaged in unlawful employment practices with respect to a group of electricians hired to work at the Millstone Power Station, in violation of Sections 503(a) and 503(b) of the ADA. Id. at 3. Thereafter, DZNPS moved to dismiss the complaint.
Judge Bolden denied DZNPS’s motion to dismiss without prejudice, holding that the EEOC’s claims of retaliation and interference under the ADA may proceed. Pursuant to Section 503(a) of the ADA, the EEOC alleged that defendant unlawfully retaliated against the employee because he filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Id. at 4. The Court noted that to plead a retaliation claim sufficiently in an employment discrimination context, the Second Circuit has held that “the plaintiff must plausibly allege that: (1) defendants discriminated—or took an adverse employment action—against him, (2) ‘because’ he has opposed any unlawful employment practice.” Id. at 5 (quoting Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 90 (2d Cir. 2015)). Defendant argued that the ADA retaliation claim should be dismissed because the EEOC’s claims failed on both prongs. Id. First, defendant argued that the EEOC had not alleged that DZNPS took any adverse employment action against the employee. Second, defendant argued that even if the EEOC had plausibly alleged an adverse employment action, it did not allege facts showing that the action was caused by the employee’s protected activity. Id. at 5.
The Court rejected both of defendant’s arguments. First, the Court noted how case law authorities have routinely held that when an employer disseminates an employee’s administrative charge of discrimination to the employee’s colleagues, a reasonable fact-finder could determine that such conduct constitutes an adverse employment action. Id. at 6. As to the second prong, the Court held that the three-month gap between when the June 2014 letter was sent and when the EEOC contacted DZNPS to request names and contact information for other electricians who had worked for defendant in the Fall of 2012 provided sufficient temporal proximity to satisfy the causation prong. Id. at 7-8. Specifically, the Court found it was plausible that the first opportunity to retaliate against the employee, whom they had already terminated, was when the EEOC provided a list of fellow union members to whom defendant could disseminate the potentially damaging EEOC charge. Id. Accordingly, denying the motion to dismiss, the Court noted that it could not conclude as a matter of law that defendant’s disclosure of the details of the employee’s EEOC disability discrimination charge in the June 2014 letter could not plausibly have been a retaliatory act in violation of the employee’s rights under the ADA. Id. at 8.
In regards to the ADA Section 503(b) interference claim asserted by the EEOC, the Court initially noted that neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit has yet outlined a test for an interference claim under the ADA. Id. at 9. Thereafter, the Court found that while it was true that the EEOC did not allege any direct evidence of DZNPS’s intent behind the June 2014 letter, the issue of an employer’s intent is a question of fact that cannot be resolved on a motion to dismiss. Further, the Court held that “the disclosure of sensitive personal information about an individual could well dissuade that individual from making or supporting a charge of discrimination under the ADA. Therefore, the Court reasonably could infer that the letter could have the effect of interfering with or intimidating [the employee] and the letter’s recipients with respect to communicating with the EEOC about potential disability discrimination by [d]efendant.” Id. at 10. Accordingly, the Court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss the retaliation and interference claims brought under the ADA, while also deferring to rule on DZNPS’s arguments regarding the available prayers for relief. Id. at 13-14.
Implications For Employers
This ruling is instructive as to why employers should exercise restraint when considering whether to internally disclose information about charges of discrimination filed by an employee, especially on a widespread basis. Courts may view such conduct as obstructive to employees’ rights to file charges with administrative agencies. Accordingly, employers should carefully limit internal communication about such charges to avoid creating the perception that they are retaliating against employees who bring charges or interfering with other employees’ rights to file future charges.
Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.