North Carolina’s Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) provides employees with legal claims against employers that retaliate against them for engaging in protected actions under state workers’ compensation, wage and hour, and workplace safety laws. Last week in an unpublished decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes the Carolinas) upheld a jury verdict against an employer accused of terminating an employee after he complained about safety issues tied to his manager drinking on the job.
In Driskell v. Summit Contracting Group, Inc., the plaintiff alleged that his supervisor reported to work drunk on multiple occasions, culminating in an assault that landed the plaintiff in the hospital. He claimed that after complaining to higher management about the drinking, he was terminated. A federal jury agreed, awarding him around $1 million in damages and attorney’s fees. The employer appealed the verdict to the Fourth Circuit, on the basis that the district court misinterpreted the scope of REDA.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the verdict, concluding that the plaintiff’s complaint fell within REDA’s protections. The court first confirmed that REDA protects both internal and external employee complaints. In this case, the plaintiff’s complaint involved workplace safety because it was tied to a supervisor’s alleged intoxication on a construction worksite. The Fourth Circuit also affirmed the jury’s wrongful discharge claim, finding that it covers legal wrongs separate from REDA.
The federal court’s interpretation of REDA is not binding on North Carolina state courts called upon to interpret the statute. However, the Fourth Circuit’s analysis of REDA indicates that state courts are likely to take an expansive view of the law’s protections. Employers that receive internal complaints from employees regarding state labor law issues should assume that the complaining employees are legally shielded from retaliation.