On April 22, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that clarifies that, for purposes of Title VII retaliation cases, an employee’s demand that a supervisor stop his or her harassing conduct constitutes protected activity under the statute. Affirming the findings of several district courts in the circuit, the appeals court held that an employee need not file a formal complaint with their employer to be protected under Title VII.
In EEOC v. New Breed Logistics, three female former employees sued New Breed when they were fired after complaining about sexual harassment by their supervisor. A fourth former employee, a male who witnessed the harassment, was fired after he spoke with an investigator about the supervisor’s conduct. At the trial level, a jury awarded the four employees $1.5 million in damages. New Breed, a supply-chain logistics company, appealed the verdict, arguing that the employees had not engaged in protected activity, that the people who decided to fire the plaintiffs were not aware of the protected activity, and that the protected activity was not the actual reason the employees were fired.
According to the Sixth Circuit, the “opposition clause” of Title VII, which prohibits retaliation against an employee who opposes an unlawful practice, requires an “expansive definition.” “Sexual harassment is without question an ‘unlawful employment practice,’” the court wrote. “If an employee demands that his/her supervisor stop engaging in this unlawful practice . . . the opposition clause’s broad language confers protection to this conduct.” In addition to determining that the employees’ complaints to the harassing supervisor were sufficient, the Sixth Circuit found that one employee was terminated by the harassing supervisor after she complained. The others were terminated by other supervisors acting under the harassing supervisor’s influence.
Employers in the Sixth Circuit should note now that an employee’s complaints to anyone at the company about a supervisor’s harassment could constitute protected activity for the purposes of a Title VII claim. Whether the company knows about the protected activity will require more in-depth analysis in each case, but employees now have a fairly low bar to proving they engaged in protected activity.