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Eleventh Circuit Says Employee Cannot Claim Retaliation if Actions Interfered With Job Performance

    Client Alerts
  • August 14, 2020

Federal civil rights laws prevent retaliation against employees who oppose discriminatory conduct in the workplace. What happens, however, when the employee’s oppositional conduct interferes with the performance of her job duties? According to a new decision from the full Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Georgia), employees whose conduct renders them ineffective in their jobs cannot later claim retaliation.

In Gogel v. Kia Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, Inc., a senior human resources officer filed an EEOC charge against the company, alleging gender and national origin discrimination relating to the promotion of a male colleague. The employer was concerned that the employee would use her position to recruit other employees to file charges against the company, and it had her sign an agreement to refrain from such conduct. The employer later received a similar charge from a subordinate of the employee (also represented by her attorney), and it terminated the plaintiff for violation of the agreement. She filed a second EEOC charge alleging retaliation and later sued the employer.

The district court dismissed the retaliation claim on the basis that the plaintiff’s alleged recruitment of another employee to sue the company was incompatible with her role as a senior human resources officer, who was charged with investigation and resolution of discrimination complaints. A split appellate circuit panel reversed this decision, and the company appealed to the full Eleventh Circuit.

The full circuit’s majority decision concluded that the plaintiff’s recruitment of another employee to file legal actions against the employer was not protected conduct because it was fundamentally incompatible with her responsibility to resolve such matters. Even if considered oppositional activity, the plaintiff’s recruiting of another employee presented a clear conflict with her job duties. While she was free to file an EEOC charge with respect to her own treatment, she could not encourage other employees to do so.

This case presents an unusual scenario that is likely restricted to senior managers, especially those involved with human resource functions. In some situations, those employees may be limited in terms of opposing what they deem to be discriminatory actions affecting other employees.