A federal judge in the Eastern District of Washington reversed a jury verdict and award in favor of a group of firefighters who had sued the city of Pullman, Washington for employment discrimination. In his opinion, the district judge reversed the jury’s decision that the firefighters had faced retaliation for defending a fire captain who had been accused of sexual harassment. This case illustrates how important it is to satisfy all of the elements of the law in an employment lawsuit.
In this case, the judge determined that the jury was wrong in finding that the city had retaliated against the firefighters for a reason that was prohibited by law. Under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”), it is unlawful to retaliate against employees who take certain protected actions, including filing a workplace rights complaint, participating in an investigation, or opposing an employer’s discriminatory acts.
To win a wrongful retaliation claim under Washington law, the employee must prove that:
1. He engaged in a protected activity
2. He suffered some sort of adverse employment action, and
3. There was a causal relationship – the adverse action was because of the protected activity.
Protected activity includes any action protected by the WLAD, such as complaining about or opposing an unlawful practice in the workplace, filing a charge, or testifying or assisting in a proceeding. However, participating in an employer’s internal investigation usually does not qualify as protected activity.
An adverse employment action is some kind of unfavorable treatment that is intended to retaliate against a protected activity and is likely to discourage other employees from taking similar protected actions. Some examples of adverse employment action include firing, demotion, suspension, failure to promote, unfavorable references, or involuntary transfer.
The last element, and sometimes the most difficult to prove, is a causal relationship between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. An employee seeking to prove that he faced wrongful retaliation must have evidence showing that his protected activity was a substantial factor in the employer’s decision to take an adverse employment action against him. Some types of potential evidence are:
-The timing of the adverse employment action in relation to when the employee took the protected action
-Evidence of the treatment of other employees who took similar protected actions
-Background facts such as the employee’s job performance history or disciplinary issues that might justify the adverse employment action
-Statements by the employer related to the adverse action
In this case, the judge determined that even if the firefighters had faced retaliation, it was not for a reason that was protected under the WLAD, and that they therefore failed to satisfy the “protected action” and “causal relationship” elements of a retaliation claim. For those reasons, the judge reversed the jury’s verdict in favor of the firefighters.
Winning a claim for workplace retaliation can be difficult, but a skilled employment attorney can make sure that all of the necessary legal elements are met. For more information, contact us today.