Retaliation Claim May Arise From Mistaken Belief About Discrimination


A recent case offers employers a good reminder of the fact that a valid retaliation claim may exist even if the underlying discrimination claim has no merit.

In Reznik v. inContact, Inc., the employee received internal complaints from two other workers, who were native Filipinos working in the company’s office in the Philippines, that they had been subjected to racial slurs by a U.S.-based company manager. The employee reported these complaints to her supervisor and to Human Resources. She was terminated shortly thereafter, because she “was not a good fit.”

The employee then sued for retaliation under Title VII. The legal standard for such a claim in most federal courts requires a plaintiff to show both a subjective, good faith belief and an objectively reasonable belief that they opposed conduct unlawful under Title VII. The trial court threw out the employee’s suit on the grounds that she did not have an objectively reasonable belief that she opposed unlawful conduct, as Title VII does not protect aliens working for a U.S. company in a foreign country.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, however, found the employee’s belief that she was opposing unlawful conduct to be objectively reasonable. The Tenth Circuit stated that expert knowledge of Title VII was not required; rather it would consider what “a reasonable employee would understand about the law and believe in same or similar circumstances.” It also noted that Title VII protects employees from retaliation, whether or not there was an underlying violation of the law. In this case, it was reasonable for an employee to know that discrimination based on race or national origin is unlawful, but not to know the statutory exceptions (such as for aliens working in a foreign country).

In summary, many times employees who think that discrimination or harassment has occurred may not ultimately be correct. But if they experience adverse action based on their (perhaps meritless but good-faith) complaint, they may have a valid retaliation claim under federal and/or state anti-discrimination laws.