In Henrie v. Carbon Sch. Dist., No. 22-4015, 2023 WL 1948621, at *1 (10th Cir. Feb. 13, 2023), Annette Henrie, a teacher for the Carbon School District, did not like her boss. In September 2015, she filed a written complaint accusing him of demeaning and belittling behavior. This complaint did not address any sexual harassment or other type of employment. In in November 2016, Henrie formally complained to the school district that her boss had sexually harassed her way back in spring of 2012 in one instance where he looked at her in a sexually suggestive way and moved his hips in a manner that made her feel uncomfortable. After retiring in 2017, Henrie sued her employer for unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
How long do I have to bring a sexual harassment complaint under Title VII?
Under Title VII, which prohibits an employer from engaging in race/color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity discrimination, an employee has 180 days from the date of the alleged incident of sexual harassment to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). This time limit may be extended to 300 days if the state or local government where the alleged incident occurred has an anti-discrimination law and agency that enforces it, and the employee files a complaint with both the EEOC and the state or local agency. It’s important to note that these time limits are incredibly strict and missing the deadline will result in losing the ability to pursue a legal claim for sexual harassment under Title VII. Because it takes time to properly file a charge with the EEOC, you should not wait to contact an employee’s rights law firm to evaluate your potential employment discrimination, harassment, and/or wrongful termination claims.
Given that it was over five years after the alleged sexual harassment incident, Henrie was time-barred from bring that claim.
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Does Title VII prevent an employer from getting revenge against employees who complain about discrimination and harassment?
In addition to prohibiting discrimination, Title VII also includes anti-retaliation provisions that protect employees from retaliation for engaging in protected activity, such as reporting or harassment in the workplace.
The anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII were established by the Supreme Court in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), which held that retaliation against an employee can take many forms beyond just termination or demotion. The Court stated: “The anti-retaliation provision protects an individual not from all retaliation, but from retaliation that produces an injury or harm… The scope of the anti-retaliation provision extends beyond workplace-related or employment-related retaliatory acts and harm.” This means that employers cannot retaliate against employees for engaging in protected activity, even if the retaliation does not involve a direct adverse employment action.
Some examples of protected activity under Title VII include:
- Filing a complaint of with the EEOC
- Participating in an investigation or lawsuit related to discrimination
- Opposing discriminatory practices in the workplace
If an employer takes adverse action against an employee in response to protected activity, the employee may have a claim for retaliation under Title VII. The employee must show that they engaged in protected activity, that the employer took adverse action against them, and that there is a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse action.
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What is considered a retaliatory act under Title VII?
The Supreme Court explained in Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson Cnty., 555 U.S. 271 (2009) that employees who report discrimination or harassment are protected from retaliation, which it defined as follows: “Title VII’s antiretaliation provision prohibits any employer action that well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of. It prohibits not only firing, but also any employer action that would ‘dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of.’”
With that being said, to prove that the employer took an adverse employment action against the protected employee, that employee must show “a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). Unfortunately, “not everything that makes an employee unhappy is an actionable adverse action.” Smart v. Ball State Univ., 89 F.3d 437, 441 (7th Cir. 1996). To that end, “petty slights, minor annoyances, and simple lack of good manners” do not qualify. White, 548 U.S. at 68.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the events that Henrie complained of did not amount to adverse actions that would amount to retaliation under Title VII. First, Henrie complained that she was excluded from a few meetings, which she had occasionally attended in the past as a substitute. The Tenth Circuit held, “Ms. Henrie’s exclusion from one meeting where she only had to provide a minor data point was not a materially adverse action.” Henrie at *3. Second, Henrie complained that the employer denied her certain training. The Court held with regard to the facts specific to this case:
By her own admission, Ms. Henrie had not undergone significant training because the incumbent was not ready to leave. Cf. White, 548 U.S. at 69 (emphasis added) (“But to retaliate by excluding an employee from a weekly training lunch that contributes significantly to the employee’s professional advancement might well deter a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination.”). Her case may have been different if she had undergone significant training, had done some billing, was on the cusp of taking over billing, or had a set date when she would take over. But here, the District stopped Ms. Henrie from doing minimal training for a position she might take over at some undetermined point in the future.
Id. at *3.
Lastly, Henrie complained that her employer sent her a letter with “a directive to stop spreading negative information” and to focus on her work. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this complaint as a form of retaliation as well:
By its plain terms, the letter was not a formal reprimand or other disciplinary measure. And the District even acknowledged it could be wrong on the substance and requested clarification if necessary. Importantly, the letter stated it would not be placed in Ms. Henrie’s permanent personnel file, indicating it would not be used for future employment decisions or otherwise harm her. Nor does she allege that it caused her to retire after the 2016-17 school year. See Alabi v. Vilsack, 860 F. App’x 576, 582 (10th Cir. 2021) (concluding a warning letter was not a materially adverse employment action when there was no evidence it caused the employee “any serious injury or material disadvantage”). The corrective letter would not have dissuaded a reasonable employee from reporting discrimination and cannot be considered a materially adverse employment action.
Id. at *3.
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Should I consult about my employment discrimination case?
An employment attorney can help you understand your legal rights as an employee, including protections under state and federal laws. They can help you determine whether your termination was lawful or not or if you have been unlawfully discriminated against based on your race, national origin, gender, age, religion or disability. If you are facing employment issues, it would be best to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical; Employment Law: Avoid Hiring The Wrong Attorney). Call our lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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