North Carolina law prohibits retaliation against employees who complain, among other things, about unsafe working conditions. Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals defined complaints under this law to mean something more than complaining to the employee's supervisor.
In Pierce v. Atlantic Group, Inc., the plaintiff was a lifting rigger who claimed that he was demoted and eventually terminated after a series of internal complaints regarding the employer's failure to adhere to soon-to-be effective OSHA regulations governing crane operation. The employer contended that the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) requires that the employee initiate or at least threaten to initiate a complaint with a government agency to claim protection.
The Court of Appeals agreed, dismissing the claim. The court read REDA to require more than the employee speaking with his supervisors about safety issues. His later complaints to the employer's complaint hotline involved his alleged demotion, and not the underlying safety concerns. The court also concluded that the plaintiff's termination was not wrongful, because he was never instructed to work in violation of the new rigging rules.
This decision takes a very narrow reading of the meaning of employee complaints under REDA. The decision also incentivizes employers to develop and implement effective internal complaint procedures. If such issues can be investigated and resolved to employees' satisfaction without recourse to a government agency, the employer may be able to avoid liability in those (hopefully few) situations where employees believe that they were retaliated against as a result of their conduct.