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Litigation Publicity as an Adverse Action for Retaliation

Retaliation comes in all shapes and sizes, and employers must act with extreme care when dealing with any employee who engaged in protected activity.

August 26, 2013
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Ray v. Ropes & Gray LLP [D. Mass. 8/16/13) [pdf] teaches a valuable lesson about what can go wrong when a dispute between an employer and a former employee goes public.

John Ray is a former associate of Boston white-shoe law firm Ropes & Gray. When the firm passed him over for partner, he first filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination charge, and then a lawsuit, claiming that the firm had illegally passed him over for partner. After Ray leaked to a legal blog a copy of an EEOC probable-cause finding on his retaliation claim, the blog sought comment from Ropes & Gray. The firm responded by providing a copy of an earlier EEOC no-probable-cause finding—which the blog published, and which included details about Ray’s performance reviews and an internal investigation into Ray’s alleged criminal conduct while at the firm.

In the subsequent litigation, Ray claimed that the release of the EEOC’s no-probable-cause finding was a sufficient adverse action to support a claim for retaliation under Title VII. The district court agreed:

Title VII prohibits an employer from responding to protected activity by taking an action that would “dissuade[] a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” The threat of dissemination of derogatory private information, even if true, would likely deter any reasonable employee from pursuing a complaint against his employer.

On her Employment & Labor Insider blog, my friend, Robin Shea, takes issue with this aspect of the decision.

I don’t consider it “retaliatory” for the firm to want to protect its reputation by releasing, in pure self-defense, a document that is a public record. Mr. Ray had a right to file a charge and a lawsuit, but once he started bad-mouthing Ropes & Gray…, he opened a door that he shouldn’t have opened.

I agree with Robin. Ropes & Gray did not start the public war of words with its former employee. Ray took his issues public first. An employer should have the right to defend itself in the sphere of public opinion. If the employer fired the first publicity shot, I could better understand a finding of retaliation. Merely responding to a smear that someone else started, however, should not be viewed as an adverse action, no matter how wide Title VII’s retaliation lens might be.

Nevertheless, this case illustrates that retaliation comes in all shapes and sizes, and employers must act with extreme care when dealing with any employee who engaged in protected activity. If something such as responding to publicity started by a disgruntled ex-employee can constitute an adverse action, the scope of what acts fall outside Title VII’s definition of “adverse” is getting smaller and smaller, which makes these claims all the more dangerous for employers.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. You can also follow Jon on Twitter @jonhyman.

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