City Fights Retaliation Claim at Trial

Yesterday, the local newspaper, The News Journal reported on an employment discrimination case that is currently in trial in the federal District Court in Wilmington, Delaware.

The plaintiff in the case is a 19-year veteran of the Wilmington Police Department who claims he was improperly demoted in retaliation for reporting offensive comments made by a supervisor. According to the officer’s attorney, he was demoted and denied transfers after he reported that another officer said that “all Puerto Ricans have low riders and fuzzy dice hanging from their mirrors” and that “all Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are alike.”

The City of Wilmington, the named defendant in the case, alleges that the comment was taken out of context and that the demotion and denials of transfers were the result of the officer’s poor work performance.

Retaliation claims like this are clearly on the rise. According to EEOC data, retaliation claims have increased by approximately 100% during the period 1992-2006! (Link to a previous post on the rapid increase of charges filed with the EEOC here). Indeed, retaliation claims now comprise 30% of the total charges filed.

What steps can an employer take to miminimize the risks of retaliation claims?

First, it’s important to have a policy prohibiting retaliation your harassment and discrimination policies.

Second, make clear in your policies that suspected retaliation must be reported and provide employees several avenues through which they can do that.

Third, make sure all supervisors and managers know that it’s unlawful to retaliate against employees for protected activity, which includes formal charges of discrimination as well as internal complaints about harassment or discrimination.

Fourth, if you receive complaints about unlawful activity or are charged with discrimination, protect the source of those complaints as much as possible. One of the best defenses to a retaliation claim is that the person who supposedly retaliated wasn’t even aware of the charge or complaint in the first place. Of course, in many situations, the employee’s immediate supervisor must be told about a complaint so an adequate investigation can be conducted.

Fifth, treat the complaining employee as if nothing has changed. Remember, however, that filing a charge or internal complaint doesn’t insulate the employee from future disciplinary action

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