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Federal Court Adopts ‘Objective Reasonableness’ Standard for Retaliation

business woman with head in hands

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who report discrimination and harassment in the workplace. But if what the employee perceives as unlawful workplace behavior is not actually illegal, are they still protected from retaliation for reporting it?

A recent ruling from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suggests that the answer is “yes.” In that case, Viktoria Reznik, who worked as director of project management for Utah company inContact, received internal complaints from two native Filipino employees that a manager had repeatedly subjected them to racial slurs. Reznik reported the complaints to her immediate supervisor and the head of HR. Both apparently assured Reznik that no employee would face reprisal for reporting the incidents.

Nonetheless, Reznik was fired soon after for not being a “good culture fit.”

Reznik brought a Title VII retaliation claim in federal district court, but a judge dismissed the case on the grounds that Title VII does not protect non-citizens working for U.S. companies and therefore the offending manager’s conduct was not technically illegal.

But the 10th Circuit overturned the decision, ruling that her lawsuit could proceed. Specifically, it found that the lower court should have focused on whether it was “objectively reasonable” for an employee to believe he or she was reporting illegal conduct. The court said that in this case it was, since the conduct in question absolutely would have been unlawful if not for an obscure, narrow exception that few nonlawyers are aware of.

The lesson for employers is that it’s dangerous to assume that just because underlying discriminatory conduct is technically not illegal, they won’t face repercussions for retaliating against the person who brought it to their attention. A better approach is not to tolerate a hostile environment no matter who is being targeted. A good employment lawyer can help guide you through the process.