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Fourth Circuit Rejects "Manager Rule" Exception to Title VII Retaliation Claims

    Client Alerts
  • August 17, 2015
Like most federal labor laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who oppose unlawful employment practices. However, a number of federal courts have adopted a “manager rule” exception to oppositional retaliation claims. This rule requires that employees step outside of their role of representing the company in order to engage in protected activity. On Monday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) concluded that the manager rule does not apply to retaliation claims brought under Title VII.

In DeMasters v. Carilion Clinic, the plaintiff was an EAP counselor who in addition to providing services for Carilion clients. also served as a counselor for the company’s own employees. He alleged that a Carilion employee met with him to disclose sexual harassment by his supervisor. Even though the supervisor was terminated, the employee claimed that he was being subjected to a hostile work environment by the departed supervisor’s fellow managers and co-workers.

In response, the plaintiff reported the employee’s claims to Carilion human resources, and also stated his belief that the company was not appropriately responding to the claims of retaliation. After the employee filed an EEOC charge, the plaintiff alleged that he was disciplined and eventually discharged for not supporting the company’s legal position, and by taking actions that could expose Carilion to significant liability. He then filed his own retaliation claim under Title VII, claiming that he was terminated for opposing practices made unlawful under Title VII.

The district court dismissed the complaint on multiple grounds, including the manager rule. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed this dismissal, remanding the matter for trial.  In its opinion, the court stated that just because an employee’s job duties involve reporting of potentially discriminatory activity, this does not wholesale remove such employee from protection under Title VII’s opposition clause. The exception is recognized under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but that statute’s retaliation provisions do not include a specific oppositional clause. The Fourth Circuit also noted that recognizing the manager rule would discourage employees from reposting suspected discrimination or harassment, because the company officials receiving such reports would have no protection against retaliation if they act to stop the conduct.

The opinion heavily relies on the Fourth Circuit’s recent Boyer-Liberto case, which substantially relaxes the standard of proof for oppositional retaliation claims. Interestingly, this case was heard by judges from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. For reasons not explained in the opinion, the entire Fourth Circuit recused itself from hearing this appeal. While this decision may not be an indication of the continuing shift of the Fourth Circuit toward plaintiff employees, it does signal that Boyer-Liberto will cause courts in the circuit to take a very expansive view of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions.