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When Your ‘Informal’ Opposition to Sexual Harassment Can Still Be Enough to Trigger a Winnable Federal Retaliation Claim Under Title VII

In any area of the law, there are obvious cases and there are not-so-obvious cases. While a textbook or a TV show might be a good place to find examples of the former, in the real world examples of the latter are more common. This is why it pays to have a knowledgeable New Jersey employment retaliation lawyer on your side. Just because your case isn’t an obvious one does not mean that it is not a valid or winnable one (far from it.) It just means that it requires the touch of a seasoned legal professional to generate a positive result.

Retaliation cases are one area where this is very true. To win your case, you need proof that you engaged in protected activity and that you suffered an adverse employment action as a proximate result of that activity. The difference between success and defeat, then, may come down to winning the arguments about whether or not what you did was protected conduct and what your employer did was an adverse employment action. These things are often much more “shades of gray” than black-and-white.

A recent federal Title VII retaliation case involving a postal service worker shows what we mean. Allegedly, in September 2014, D.G., who was the postmaster of a post office in Bergen County, experienced an incident where a letter carrier engaged in non-consensual touching, hugging her, kissing her, and grabbing her rear.

The postmaster indicated that she planned to sue the letter carrier. According to the postmaster, the letter carrier agreed to settle the dispute. The two sides signed a settlement agreement and the letter carrier agreed to pay D.G. $10,000. Two years later, though, the USPS began investigating D.G. about the settlement, accusing her of extorting the letter carrier by threatening him with the loss of his job and violence (to be carried out by D.G.’s husband) if the letter carrier did not pay up.

A few months later, the USPS demoted D.G. to the job of mail handler, which resulted in a massive reduction in pay. (D.G.’s salary was reduced by more than $40,000.) Following that demotion, D.G. sued for retaliation. Her case was that she engaged in multiple protected activities for which she endured punishment from her employer in the form of a demotion.

One protected activity was her reporting the alleged instance of sexual harassment. (According to D.G.’s complaint, she reported the incident to the EEO office, the acting supervisor of her post office, and the letter carrier’s union representative.) Additionally, there was D.G.’s threatening to sue the man and then eventually settling that dispute.

The employer’s argument was that these things did not constitute protected activities and, because they were not protected activities, there was no basis for a claim of retaliation.

A Formal Type of Protest Isn’t Required for Your Retaliation Claim

That argument did not persuade the district court, as the judge ruled in D.G.’s favor on the employer’s motion for summary judgment. The ruling in this postal worker’s favor is a clear reminder that you do not have to have engaged in a formal internal, administrative, or legal action for your actions to qualify as protected conduct and be the foundation of a viable retaliation claim.

Back in 2006, a ruling from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings directly impact federal cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) expressly said that “‘informal protests of discriminatory employment practices, including making complaints to management, writing critical letters to customers, protesting against discrimination by industry or society in general, and expressing support for coworkers who have filed formal charges’ constitute ‘opposition’ under” Title VII.

Even though D.G.’s actions were not the stereotypical form of informal protest, they nevertheless were enough. The law has dictated that initiating “a civil claim against one’s harasser for their harassing conduct is clearly “’resisting,’ ‘confronting,’ or ‘contending against’ sexual harassment.” According to the court, threatening to pursue such a claim against an alleged harasser (as D.G. did) similarly could potentially be a protected activity for the purposes of a retaliation lawsuit.

The alleged facts of D.G.’s were something that, without skillful legal knowledge, could have resulted in a defeat before she ever got to trial. With a knowledgeable legal advocate, however, this worker was able to avoid that outcome and continue the pursuit of her retaliation case. If you’ve been harmed at work as a result of standing up against discrimination or sexual harassment, get in touch with the knowledgeable New Jersey employment retaliation attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Reach out to us online or call (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and get started putting our knowledgeable, zealous, and creative legal minds to work for you.

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