Discipline Threat for False EEOC Charges Adverse, But Officers Lose Retaliation Claim

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By Jay-Anne Casuga    

July 23 --Five white officers for a New York sheriff's department were subjected to adverse action when officials threatened them with discipline for filing allegedly false racial harassment charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but still can't proceed to trial on their federal and state law retaliation claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled July 23.

The Second Circuit affirmed summary judgment to the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department on the officer's claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the New York State Human Rights Law, finding that the department produced a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the threat.

For example, the court said the department offered evidence that the white officers gave materially inconsistent statements to an internal investigation unit and the EEOC about a black officer accusing them of being members of a “skinhead” racial supremacy group. Their own purportedly false complaints could in turn be viewed as racial harassment of the black officer, the court said.

The white officers presented no evidence to rebut the department's reason as pretextual, the court said. It also rejected the officers' separate claim that the department's internal investigation of their complaints was a retaliatory adverse action.

Judge Ralph K. Winter wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Denny Chin and Christopher F. Droney.

No Immunity for Workers Who File False Charges

According to the Second Circuit, Title VII's language doesn't suggest that an “absolute privilege” immunizes employees who knowingly file false bias charges with the EEOC.

“However, the fact that false charges before the EEOC are not permitted does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the employers targeted by such charges are entitled to respond with disciplinary action against the filing employee,” the court said.

A threat of disciplinary action triggered by the submission of EEOC charges “would often--even usually--be a deterrent to reasonable employees making or supporting discrimination claims,” the court said.

As such, the threat itself may be an adverse action for Title VII retaliation purposes, as it was in the present case in which the officers filed racial harassment charges with the EEOC and were later told--as part of a continuing internal investigation on their claims--that they could be disciplined for submitting false charges, the court said.

No Pretext in Reason for Threat

However, the sheriff's department proffered a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the threat, namely that the record shows that the officers' own racial harassment claims were “false and seemingly intentionally so,” the court said.

During the initial internal investigation of their claims, the courtsaid, the white officers had told officials that a black officer only inquired about why they had shaved their heads, which they had done in support of another officer with cancer. However, in their subsequent EEOC charges, the white officers stated under oath that a black officer accused them of being skinheads, the court said.

“[T]he fact that false charges before the EEOC are not permitted does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the employers targeted by such charges are entitled to respond with disciplinary action against the filing employee,” the Second Circuit said.

“Employers are under an independent duty to investigate and curb racial harassment by lower level employees of which they are aware,” the court said. “It would therefore be anomalous to conclude that an employer is not allowed to investigate, with a view to discipline, false complaints of harassment that themselves might be viewed as intended as racial harassment.”

Meanwhile, the officers failed to show that the department's stated reason was pretextual, the court said.

The officers “have presented no evidence that the warning about disciplinary action was intended to retaliate for any reason other than the apparent falsity of their EEOC charges and the complex circumstances those false charges created.”

The court also found that the department's investigation itself was not a retaliatory adverse action.

It was not “carried out so as to result in a hostile work environment, constructive discharge, or other employment consequences of a negative nature,” or “conducted in such an egregious manner as to 'dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination,' ” the court said.

The Bosman Law Office represented the officers. The Onondaga County Department of Law represented the sheriff's department.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga in Washington at jcasuga@bna.com  

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Cox_v_Onondaga_County_Sheriffs_Depa_Docket_No_1201526_2d_Cir_Apr_.

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