Proving Retaliation: Mohammed v. Cent. Driving Mini Storage
It is one thing to experience a retaliatory termination under The 1964 Civil Rights Act, and quite another to prove it. The recent decision of Mohammed v. Cent. Driving Mini Storage, Inc., 128 F. Supp. 932 (D. Va. 2015) provides some good pointers.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended, often is called "Title VII," and Title VII prohibits discrimination at work on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 et seq. It also protects employees seeking its protections or opposing discrimination (called "protected activity") from loss of pay, significant demotion, and termination under the legal claim of "retaliation." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).
Employees who oppose discriminatory practices, participate in a Title VII proceeding, as well as makes waves while seeking their rights provided under Title VII are protected from retaliation. Mohammed, 128 F. Supp. at 942.
Looking at the Mohammed Decision:
Here an assistant store manager, Mr. Mohammed, identified religiously as a Seventh Day Adventist. He worked for some years at a storage facility chain but refused to work Saturdays, because that constituted his religious Sabbath day. The employee revealed this at his hiring interview. It was not a problem for the first three years of work. However in 2010, he got a new supervisor who was not pleased with his Saturdays off. Id. at 936-937. She wanted him to work Saturdays. Id. at 939.
Mr. Mohammed reminded her of his religious accommodation need, and objected to it being withdrawn, especially at a meeting during August 2010. Soon, he was made a floater across stores, his hours were reduced, and then about five months later, he was fired. During this time, Mr. Mohammed communicated more than once to object to these workplace changes and cancelation of his religious day off. He was fired in January 2011. Id. at 937-941.
Because Mr. Mohammed participated in seeking religious accommodation rights as well as opposed apparent disregard for them, he engaged in "protected activity" that makes it illegal to retaliate against him by firing him. In other words, simply opposing a bad practice such as workplace corruption does not trigger any Title VII retaliation right.
See Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 191 (4th. Cir. 2010) (holding that a government worker who was targeted for workplace discipline and/or termination after intervening in questionable workplace business practices fails to state a Title VII retaliation claim because that does not involve protected activity). Other federal, state, and local laws, a union contract right if applicable, and for many government workers, civil service protections, might apply. It is smart to consult a lawyer and keep an open mind about what solution if any applies.
The Federal Court Ruled:
In conclusion, the federal trial court in Mohammed v. Cent. Driving Mini Storage, Inc. held that while being made a floater was not the type of harsh "adverse employment action" that could support a Title VII federal lawsuit, in part because the change did not affect his rank or pay, the termination constituted illegal retaliation. The Court so held because the employer's rationale for terminating Mr. Mohammed was not believable. The Court, in other words, determined it was "pretext" for his protected activity of seeking to maintain a Sabbath accommodation and objecting to its withdrawal.
What Are the Takeaways? Here are Four:
(1) This assistant store manager had no known problems for about three years until a specific manager above him in 2010 started paying attention, refused to honor his Saturdays off, and fired him about five months later. While the Court did not expressly pinpoint this background, it is notable context for finding for the employee. Id. at 936-937.
(2) The employer's documentation, including an email explanation for why he was being turned into a floater and why his hours were being reduced, called him a "valuable employee." Id. at 939-940. The Court relied on this as contradictory evidence concerning the employer's claim that he was fired for poor performance shortly thereafter.
(3) Concerning a work performance form issued prior to termination, it did not state what the employer's manager claimed about it. Id. at 940. In fact, it was not even signed by a manager. Id. at 941. It also was not a typical HR document according to the evidence before the Court. Id. at 940.
(4) Emails about workplace coaching, prior to termination, were written in a manner indicating they concerned Mr. Mohammed's attempts to be promoted. Of course during litigation, the employer offered these emails as evidence that he was about to be fired. Id. at 940. The Court did not believe the employer's story over the emails themselves.
Gregg H. Mosson, Esq., practices employment and family law in Maryland, as well as Social Security disability-benefit law, based out of Towson, at Mosson Law, LLC. For more information, please visit www.MossonLaw.com.