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Fourth Circuit Rejects Retaliation Claim Based on ‘Personal Gossip'

    Client Alerts
  • June 01, 2023

In Johnson v. Global Language Center, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court's decision to grant summary judgment in favor of an employer in a Title VII retaliation claim, where the “protected activity” at issue was largely personal gossip. The case involved a language instructor employed by GLC, who was terminated after sending a lengthy email to State Department officials expressing concerns about a rumored selection of her new supervisor. GLC claimed that the email was unprofessional, while the plaintiff argued that it was protected activity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The court quoted the full text of the email sent by the plaintiff, which detailed allegations of unethical and unprofessional behavior by the potential supervisor and described instances of harassment, sexual misconduct, and favoritism. The plaintiff believed it was crucial information that needed to be reported. GLC terminated the plaintiff two days later, citing her unprofessional behavior and referencing the email. The plaintiff sued GLC.

The district court dismissed all claims except the retaliation claim. GLC then moved for summary judgment on the remaining claim, which the district court granted. The district court found that the plaintiff’s email did not constitute protected activity under Title VII, characterizing it as a “rambling diatribe” that no reasonable juror would consider as protected activity. Alternatively, the court determined that even if the email qualified as protected activity, there were non-retaliatory reasons for GLC's termination of the plaintiff.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiff’s “vague and sporadic references to ‘retaliation’ and ‘harassment’ … are insufficient to qualify as protected activity.” The court reasoned that “[r]ead against the backdrop of the rest of the email, these sparse references to potentially problematic behavior are surrounded by what can only be called personal gossip.”

The Fourth Circuit’s ruling may surprise some employers due to the typically low standard for establishing “protected activity” under Title VII. The ruling will provide support for employers who find themselves the subject of retaliation claims brought by employees who engage in personal gossip even if they reference magic words like “discrimination” or “harassment.” 

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