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Employee Witness Entitled to Same Protections against Retaliation as Complaining Employee

In this case, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals holds that not only is an employee who complains about inappropriate conduct in the workplace protected from retaliation, but the same protections extend to those employees who participate in an investigation into the alleged conduct.

In Sayger v. Riceland Foods, Inc., No. 12-3301 (8th Cir. November 18, 2013, a Caucasian maintenance worker cooperated with his employer's investigation into other employees' complaints about a supervisor's racist language. The worker informed the investigator that he heard this particular supervisor use offensive language about African-American employees. He had asked the supervisor to stop, but the supervisor refused. The investigator concluded that there was a pattern of inappropriate language and use of derogatory racial comments.

The worker was laid off within months of participating in the investigation. He filed suit alleging retaliatory discharge in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1981, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and related state statutes, claiming he was terminated because he participated in the investigation. The employer moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted in part. The case went to trial on the §1981 claim and the jury awarded the worker compensatory damages and back pay. Both parties appealed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court held that an employee who substantiated complaints of workplace conduct has demonstrated opposition to that conduct and has acted to vindicate the rights of others, and thus should receive the same protection against retaliation as the person who complained. To hold otherwise, the court reasoned, would impede internal efforts to address discrimination.

Taking adverse employment action against employees who have recently complained or participated in an investigation can be risky. Employers should be mindful of this when making such decisions, and ensure that legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons support the action taken. If you have questions or would like more information, read about Sayger v. Riceland Foods, Inc., No. 12-3301 (8th Cir. November 18, 2013).

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