It’s Not Retaliation Just Because the Employee Doesn’t Like It


Not every action that an employee dislikes constitutes illegal retaliation, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently confirmed in a case involving reassignment to an unwanted position.

In Lima v. City of East Providence, a school principal sued the School Department, claiming retaliation for her advocacy for better affirmative action practices. The case was eventually settled. Following a change in leadership at the School Department, the principal complained about various workplace issues (e.g. lack of a rug, substitute teacher, timing of performance reviews). She was then asked if she would become the principal of a newly-created pre-K program, for which the Department had received a state grant. Believing it to be a demotion, she refused. She was nonetheless placed into the position. She then sued, alleging discriminatory retaliation under state law.

The First Circuit found that the employer had set forth a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the transfer – that she was the only elementary school principal in the Department with both pre-K qualification credentials and experience as a principal. In fact, her credentials were cited in the Department’s application for the grant and, as the First Circuit noted, “may well have been an influential factor in the grant award.” Her own suspicions of retaliatory motive were simply not enough to cast this reason into doubt.

This case reminds employers that employees who engage in protected conduct – such as complaining of discrimination – must be handled with care, but such conduct does not insulate the employee from legitimate employment actions, even if they are actions that the employee does not like.