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Drama, drama, drama!

published in Oklahoma Employment Law Letter | May 1, 2013

By Elizabeth Bowersox

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a love triangle among coworkers doesn’t constitute “protected activity” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court’s decision — that alleged harassment based on nothing more than a personal conflict isn’t a violation of the Act — has universal application. With no underlying violation, an employer can’t be held liable for retaliating against an employee who makes such a complaint.

Workplace drama

Ehnae Northington was an employee of H&M International Transportation when she began dating coworker Terrell Maghett. Unfortunately, Maghett was already in a relationship with someone else. In fact, he had been dating coworker Shequita Sims for the last seven years. When Sims became suspicious that Maghett was involved with Northington, she made verbal and physical threats against her rival. Eventually, Sims physically assaulted Northington outside of work and pleaded guilty to battery.

This awkward work situation was further complicated because the assistant manager was Sims’ mother, who was married to the manager. In other words, the management team consisted of the mother and the stepfather of the alleged harasser.

Northington made internal complaints to H&M’s president and the director of operations. She complained (1) about harassment by Sims and Sims’ mother (the assistant manager) and (2) about the management style of Sims’ mother and stepfather. Importantly, she didn’t complain that the alleged harassment was based on her race or gender.

Later, during a safety inspection of Northington’s vehicle, the inspector noticed that Northington had a slow response time, difficulty following the conversation, and constricted pupils. He suspected her of being on drugs. Under H&M policy, the inspector told Northington she would have to be tested for drugs. He then accompanied her to a testing facility. After providing an unusable sample, Northington refused to be drug tested. Consistent with its policy, H&M terminated her for her refusal.

Title VII’s protections

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. An employee engages in protected activity by (1) filing a charge, (2) testifying or participating in an investigation, or (3) opposing an unlawful employment practice. An employer may not retaliate against an employee who has engaged in protected activity.

In this case, Northington’s complaints regarding Sims’ treatment of her qualified as protected activity under Title VII only if the complaints arose from harassment based on a protected factor such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The lawsuit

Northington sued H&M, claiming her termination was (1) in retaliation for her complaints against Sims and (2) in violation of Title VII. The court noted that the internal complaints Northington made (as well as the criminal complaint she lodged after Sims’ physical assault) were protected only if they arose from harassment based on a protected factor. Of course, while Northington’s claims were related to a sexual situation (a “love triangle” involving Sims’ boyfriend), they had nothing to do with her race or gender. In fact, as the court noted, Sims and Northington are the same race and gender. In short, there was no evidence that the alleged harassment was based on anything but personal conflict.

So what did that mean for Northington’s retaliation claim? The court held that “because the harassment itself was not a purported violation of Title VII, Northington’s complaints do not qualify as alleging a protected activity.” In other words, “vague and obscure complaints do not constitute protected activity.” With no underlying Title VII violation, the harassment complaints weren’t protected activity. Therefore, Northington’s termination could not be illegal retaliation.

Holding that Northington’s claims had failed, the 7th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case before trial in favor of the employer. Northington v. H&M International, 117 FEP Cases 1053 (7th Cir., March 21, 2013).

Bottom line

Personal conflicts between employees are a common situation. Sims’ verbal and physical threats against Northington, as well as the physical assault that followed, clearly are unacceptable workplace behavior. However, in this case, the 7th Circuit reaffirmed that bad behavior based on personal conflict, rather than protected status, isn’t protected under Title VII. The 10th Circuit (whose rulings apply to all Oklahoma employers) is consistent with this approach.

Employers should carefully document employees’ complaints and discipline. In this case, the employer had evidence that Northington’s complaints were based on personal conflict, not race or gender as she later claimed. In addition, it could show that it followed its policies in terminating her for violating the drug-testing policy. These factors were key in defeating her claims.