Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fields v. Dep't of Juvenile Justice: Are you only protected against retaliation if you complain to an "appropriate person"?

In Fields v. Department of Juvenile Justice, No. 16-17302 (Oct. 25, 2017), the Eleventh Circuit upheld a jury verdict in the defendant's favor on Chandra Fields's retaliation claim, ruling that the district court did not err in instructing the jury that Fields was required to show that she complained "in good faith to an appropriate person about racial discrimination." The instruction explained that an "appropriate person" was "anyone above Ms. Fields in her chain of command or any human-relations employee." Fields alleged that she had complained to two different HR employees.

Given the alleged facts, it does not appear that the jury instruction, even if erroneous, prejudiced Fields since the only potential protected activity that she had alleged fell within the district court's narrow definition. But rather than merely concluding no harm, no foul, the appeals court concluded that the jury instruction correctly stated the law. This is a peculiar conclusion, given that the instruction clearly did not reflect the broad scope of protected activity under EEO law. And indeed the district court had agreed to broaden the instruction if Fields had offered evidence of protected activity not covered by it.

My point here is simply that the appeals court's endorsement of a jury instruction that a plaintiff must provide evidence of a complaint to an "appropriate official" does not reflect the state of the law generally. In this case, it was all that Fields offered, but in a different case, another plaintiff may allege other kinds of protected activity, and this decision should not be understood as precluding that kind of claim. 

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.