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Employee who encouraged coworker to file claim protected by KCRA

01.01.2008

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky recently expanded protection to employees by holding that an employee who encourages a coworker to file a discrimination complaint is protected under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA) so long as she has a reasonable, good-faith belief that discrimination occurred.

Facts

In August 2006, Larry Brewer, supervisor for Pioneer Credit Company's Kentucky offices, told staff members in Bowling Green that Jason Evan was being promoted to traveling manager. Employee Beth Eddington questioned the decision, and Brewer informed her that "he didn't figure she would be interested in the position because she had a child at home."

Daria Johnson, another employee, urged Eddington to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Eddington didn't believe discrimination occurred, but on Johnson's advice, she filed an internal complaint with the office manager. Two days later, Pioneer terminated Johnson.

Johnson filed a charge under the KCRA claiming that Pioneer terminated her in retaliation for encouraging a coworker to file an EEOC charge. The company asked the court to dismiss the case, but the court denied its request.

Court's analysis

The KCRA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee for opposing an unlawful employment practice. The court acknowledged that claims under the Act are analyzed the same as claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To establish a prima facie (initial) case, an employee must prove that:

  1. she engaged in a protected activity;
  2. the employer knew about the protected activity;
  3. the employer took an adverse action against the employee; and
  4. a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.

Once the employee has established a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action. The burden then shifts back to the employee to prove that its reason is merely a pretext for discrimination.

Pioneer argued that Johnson never engaged in protected activity by encouraging Eddington to file an EEOC charge because Eddington didn't believe discrimination occurred. It further contended that the KCRA doesn't protect an employee from being terminated for encouraging a coworker to sue the employer.

The court disagreed, stating that the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court that covers Kentucky) recognizes an employee's opposition to unlawful conduct, which includes complaints about discrimination related to oneself or one's coworkers. Even if an allegation is ultimately found to be nondiscriminatory, the activity is still protected so long as the employee had a "reasonable, good-faith belief" that the actions were discriminatory.

The court found that Johnson established a prima facie case. It reasoned that when she encouraged Eddington to file a complaint, she opposed an unlawful employment practice. There was sufficient evidence that a reasonable jury could find a good-faith belief on her part. The court further stated that Pioneer knew about Johnson's activity and that she suffered an adverse employment action through her ultimate termination. The court didn't discuss how the company learned about her suggestion to file a charge.

Finally, in relation to a causal connection, the court found that because Johnson's termination occurred within a matter of days after she encouraged Eddington to file a claim, she established a causal connection through temporal proximity.

The burden then shifted to Pioneer to articulate a legitimate reason for firing Johnson. The company asserted that it terminated her for poor performance and not being a "team player." In fact, Johnson's personnel filed revealed numerous reprimands for poor performance and for making rude comments toward supervisors, customers, and other coworkers. Therefore, the court determined that Pioneer met its burden, thereby shifting the burden back to Johnson to prove that its reason was only a pretext. In other words, she had to establish that the company's reason had no basis in fact.

Johnson offered the deposition testimony of her supervisor, who testified that she was one of the best employees and was always a "team player." Accordingly, she met her burden, and the court denied Pioneer's request to dismiss the case. Johnson v. Pioneer Credit Co., 2007 WL 3146091 (W.D. Ky.).

Bottom line

Traditionally, courts have granted protection under the KCRA only to employees who file a charge or participate in a proceeding. The court's ruling in this case expands the law in the wrong direction by protecting employees who simply encourage another to file a discrimination complaint.

It's important to note, however, that the Sixth Circuit has yet to address the issue. Hopefully, the court will take a look at the issue and rectify the situation, but until then, you must be mindful of how one district court views the scope of protection available to employees under the KCRA.


If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department. Find us online atwww.gdm.com

Copyright 2008 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC 
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law.  Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.

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