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When An Internal Complaint Is Unrelated To Discrimination: Balancing The Seventh Circuit And The EEOC

On March 21, 2013, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a complaint in which the plaintiff claimed that she was fired in retaliation based on race and sex after making an internal complaint that she was attacked by a co-worker. The Seventh Circuit issued a decision discussing what constitutes protected activity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). When read in tandem with the EEOC’s recent “fact sheet” discussing Title VII and domestic violence, it becomes clear that employers should take a deeper look at the substance of any internal complaint when considering exposure to retaliation claims.

Everyone Loves A Lover’s Quarrel

In Northington v. H & M International, the Seventh Circuit reviewed a workplace drama involving a love triangle, threats, stalking, and assault. Ehnae Northington, a “lot checker” for one of H & M International Transportation’s (“H & M”) railroad and trucking terminals, dated a fellow H & M employee who already was involved in a seven-year relationship with another employee, Shequita Sims. After Sims learned about Northington’s relationship, Sims made several verbal and physical threats to Northington. Northington complained about Sims’ behavior to her Terminal Manager, Bart Collins. Collins, as luck would have it, was dating Sims’ mother, who just happened to be the Assistant Terminal Manager. (Apparently H & M did not have a non-fraternization policy.)

Collins met with Sims and Northington in an attempt to settle their dispute, however, was not able to do so. Sims later assaulted Northington at a gas station, off H & M property. Northington filed a criminal complaint against Sims, and Sims pleaded to battery. As a condition of Sims’ guilty plea, she was subject to a no contact order. Northington provided a copy of this order to her union and made internal complaints to H & M, claiming that Sims and Sims’ mother harassed her, but did not allege that the harassment was based on her race or gender.

Northington’s Termination

During a subsequent safety inspection of Northington’s work vehicle, the inspector suspected that Northington was under the influence of drugs. Northington was in turn directed to undergo a “reasonable suspicion” drug test at a testing facility where she produced an untestable sample. Northington was instructed to wait at the testing facility until she could produce a suitable sample. If she refused to do so, her behavior would be deemed a “refusal to test.” Northington left the testing facility without providing a second sample and refused to return.

Based on Northington’s refusal to test, Human Resources terminated Northington’s employment. The Vice President for Human Resources and the two reviewing officers were unaware of Northington’s internal conflict with Sims.

Northington filed a lawsuit, claiming that her termination was in retaliation for her complaints against Sims, in violation of Title VII.

Northington’s Complaint Was Unrelated To Discrimination

The district court granted H & M’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Northington failed to establish her retaliation claim because she had not participated in a protected activity under Title VII. Northington appealed. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s award of summary judgment.

The Seventh Circuit based its decision on the fact that while Northington filed an internal complaint and a criminal complaint regarding Sims’ behavior, Title VII only could protect these complaints if they arose from harassment based on a protected factor, such as race or sex. However, Sims’ threats and assault of Northington were not related to Northington’s race or gender. As stated by the court, “Vague and obscure ‘complaints’ do not constitute protected activity.” Rather, Sims only was motivated by “personal conflict”. Because the harassment alleged by Northington was not related to race, gender, or any other Title VII-protected classification, Northington’s complaint did not qualify as protected activity. Rather, they were “simply personal conflicts.”

The EEOC Muddies the Newly-Cleaned Waters

The Seventh Circuit has emphasized that retaliation claims do not arise simply from any internal complaint. A retaliation claim only will arise if the underlying complaint is related to race, color, sex, religion, or any other protected status.

However, employers should not immediately dismiss concerns regarding such internal complaints. Before dismissing “relationship complaints”, employers also should consider whether they have any exposure under the EEOC’s recent position on domestic violence. The EEOC has published a “fact sheet” stating that employers should consider the personal circumstances of their employees who may have been victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault. If an employment decision is based on such considerations, it may violate Title VII or the ADA, leading to a retaliation claim.

Employer’s should beware that an employee with complaints similar to Northington might be able to support a retaliation claim if it arises from domestic violence or stalking. Northington could have pursued her claim under the theory that she was stalked by Sims based on her relationship with Sims’ boyfriend. Northington filed a criminal complaint and alerted H & M as to the assault by Sims. It is possible that this activity could constitute stalking or domestic violence. Because Northington made an internal complaint on this basis, she could have stated a prima facie case for retaliation because her internal complaint could have related to a protected class, according to EEOC’s position on domestic violence.

Although the Seventh Circuit has taken the position that retaliation complaints cannot arise from mere “personal conflicts,” employers should be aware that they may have some exposure under Title VII if an employee brings a complaint to their attention related to domestic violence, stalking, or other personal circumstances. If an employee files an internal complaint about personal conflicts that appear unrelated to a Title VII-protected class, employers should investigate deeper to determine whether the complaint might have roots in conflicts that indicate domestic violence, stalking, or related circumstances. If so, the employer should take care to follow its usual protocols for any potential retaliation claim.

If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact your Davis & Kuelthau attorney.