Workplace Culture

Determining When a Company Knows That an Employee Engaged in Protected Activity

By Staff Report

Aug. 21, 2012

“The check is in the mail” is one of the world’s oldest (and some would argue lamest) excuses. In Hicks v. SSP America (6th Cir. 8/3/12), the employer tried a variation in an attempt to avoid an employee’s retaliation claim. The employer argued that it was impossible for it have known that the plaintiff had filed an EEOC charge before it fired her because it has lost its mailbox key and therefore it could not have received its copy of the charge. Without debating the merits of the employer’s argument, the court of appeals still concluded that a factual issue existed on the issue of whether the employer knew of the protected activity, and reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. The court relied, in part, on testimony from Hicks’s direct supervisor that he “‘remember[ed] seeing it’ (apparently meaning he had seen either the notice-of-charge envelope from the Commission or the charge itself).”

This case teaches two important points:

First, retaliation claims are dangerous. In Hicks, the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the underlying discrimination claim. Nevertheless, the employer still faces the risk of a trial on the retaliation claim.

And secondly, when crafting a defense, it has to pass the B.S. test. Unsupported defenses that border on the ludicrous (I lost the mailbox key) better have some meat on their bones. Receipts from a locksmith? An affidavit from the mailman that mail was piling up inside the box? Other corroborating witnesses? The less support you can present, the less likely it will be that a judge or a jury will believe your cockamamie story. And, the less likely they are to believe you, the more zeros you can add to the verdict.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

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