The EEOC has just announced that it has succeeded in winning a rare summary judgment motion on behalf of an employee who claimed that he was unlawfully retaliated against by his employer.
To be awarded summary judgment there must be found to be no material facts in dispute and, therefore, as a matter of law the moving party wins because there is no need to have a trial. Employers frequently obtain summary judgment since it is no easy task for an employee to make out each and every element of, lets say, a Title VII claim, i.e., all of the McDonnell Douglas elements necessary to make out a case of discrimination.
On the other hand, summary judgment in favor of a discrimination plaintiff is almost unheard of. This is because there are almost always issues of fact put forward by the employer concerning what alleged adverse action took place and why, or relating to any number of defenses that the employer may have. It is therefore of particular note that the EEOC was successful in this case and we should understand the reasons for it. And employers should take note of the EEOC’s explicit warnings.
In this case, EEOC v. Cognis Corp., plaintiff was a longtime employee who, as a condition of continued employment, was required by the employer to sign a “last-chance” employment agreement, in which he waived his right to file any discrimination charge with the EEOC, even charges based upon acts which had not yet occurred. Plaintiff refused to sign away these statutory rights, and the EEOC alleged that he was fired as a result.
In December, the court initially found that there “is no question” that the employee was fired for not signing the agreement, and gave leave to the EEOC to make a motion for summary judgment on the issue of whether the employer retaliated against plaintiff by firing him for refusing to sign the agreement. The court ultimately granted summary judgment to the EEOC on this legal issue.
The court correctly stated that “It is not often that a plaintiff moves for or is granted summary judgment on a Title VII retaliation claim,” but held, in effect, that it was not reasonably in dispute that the employer unlawfully retaliated against the plaintiff when it fired him. The only issue left is what remedy the plaintiff is entitled to.
An EEOC attorney noted in a press release issued after the EEOC’s initial victory in December, that “it is a risky and illegal proposition” for employers to “dup[e its] employees into believing their rights are waived,” which the employer was no doubt “banking on.” He warned that “the EEOC is on the lookout for cases like this where employees are most vulnerable to employer excess.”
In yesterday’s press release, after announcing the granting of summary judgment, another EEOC attorney warned further that “Filing EEOC charges is a fundamental right of American employees, and this agency always stands ready to protect that right. This court’s opinion should cause employers to remember that seeking to dissuade employees from exercising that right is not only bad policy, it’s a violation of federal law which can give rise to very substantial liability (emphasis added).”