Snohomish County’s Medical Examiner’s Office has agreed to pay one of its former employees close to half a million dollars as a part of a workplace retaliation settlement. Shannon Impett, a former county death inspector of seven years from Granite Falls, settled outside of court earlier this week. Her lawsuit against the Medical Examiner’s Office sought back pay and compensation for emotional distress among other things for claims ranging from a hostile work environment to retaliation. She claimed her boss retaliated against her the day after she complained to her supervisor about the office’s working conditions and the state of the work environment. She said that he intentionally caused blood from a cadaver to splash onto her face and body when he unprofessionally threw some of the cadaver’s organs back inside the cadaver’s chest cavity. This hostile action caused her emotional distress and seemed retaliatory to her. Since the matter was settled outside of court, there was no ruling on whether it was retaliation, but the County Council did unanimously agree to the settlement.
Hostile Work Environment
Hostile work environment’s impact more than just the emotional well-being of employees, productivity and business image can be affected as well. Generally, a hostile work environment occurs when an employee or employees, a manager, or even a customer repeatedly harasses another employee to the point where that employee’s work performance is negatively affected. Most people only think of workplace harassment based on discriminatory grounds like race, religion, age or gender. But as in the situation above, retaliation is also a form of harassment even though it is not always based on a traditional ground for discrimination.
Both state and federal law prohibit retaliation. In fact, anti-retaliation provisions can be found in most employment laws from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to Washington State’s discrimination laws. Retaliation laws protect covered individuals from being adversely affected because they filed a complaint, testified or assisted in complaint proceedings, or exercised ones rights. It is possible that many day-to-day actions within a business could be seen as retaliation. For example, a co-worker could snub the person who filed a complaint or the co-worker could find ways to annoy the other person because of the filed complaint. These petty actions, while retaliatory, generally do not rise to the level necessary to file a complaint since these same petty actions can happen to someone who simply upset a co-worker by not returning a beloved stapler.
In order for an action to be retaliatory it has to meet three requirements. First, the person must be someone who falls under the laws protection; this is usually a person who opposes a discriminatory employment practice, though in some cases it can be a person who is related to the person opposing the discrimination. Second, the person has to have taken part in a covered activity like filing a complaint or asking for accommodations for religious or medical reasons. Finally, there needs to be an adverse or negative action that could keep a person for pursuing the complaint or testifying, like a demotion, termination or severe cut in hours.
Workplace harassment and retaliation can be complex and emotional situations and experienced employment attorneys can help.