An interesting case from Salt Lake County, Utah, recently caught my attention. The county was facing a sexual harassment claim. The complainant’s coworker, Michael Barrett, helped her successfully win her case. Barrett is a hero, right? Wrong. Shortly after assisting his coworker, Barrett was demoted. Now, if that wasn’t enough to scream, “Retaliation!” the county hired a replacement for his previously held position.
Barrett, now knowing his way around the justice system, filed suit against the county alleging his demotion was a retaliatory action and violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The county argued that he was poor worker. However, Barrett successfully presented evidence of his 14 years with the county having received multiple promotions and positive performance reviews – until that fateful moment when he began helping his distressed coworker. The court ordered that Barrett be paid the same amount of pay in his new, demoted position that he had received in the old job, and that the newly hired, innocent employee not be removed from Barrett’s old position. The county, of course, appealed.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose rulings govern Utah employers, upheld the previous court’s decision. They agreed that Barrett had presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that he had been retaliated against by the county. The 10th Circuit also agreed that the trial court had ordered an appropriate remedy to Barrett and the new hire.
Notable in this case was the supervisor’s actions. HRLaws.com reported that, “The disciplinary proceedings that resulted in his demotion began almost immediately after his ‘supervisor learned of his involvement in the sexual harassment complaint.’” Interestingly enough, other witnesses that were involved in the case were disciplined and the supervisor who administered some of the disciplinary actions lost the records for them. Convenient.
Employers should be aware that employees have the right to complain about illegal treatment in the workplace. They have the right to assist other employees, as witnesses, in a claim. Any adverse employment actions against a complainant or a witness should be taken with extreme caution (and experienced legal counsel) so the action doesn’t even appear to be retaliatory.
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