Businesses May Be Able to Defend Against Title VII Lawsuits by Properly Micromanaging

A female employee’s claim of retaliatory termination under Title VII was tossed out on a summary judgment motion because the supervisor who received the employee’s discrimination complaint was not the same person who was principally responsible for making the termination decision.  The Federal Court’s decision was later affirmed by the Fourth Circuit in Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc.

The case involved a claim by a former employee of Northrop Grumman Corporation (Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. is the successor of Northrop Grumman).  The employee wore ripped jeans to work, and her supervisor, Brad Price, asked her to change into more appropriate attire.  Upon returning to work, the employee complained to Price that his request was discriminatory since he did not ask male employees, dressed in similarly ripped jeans, to change.  Over one year later, the Department Manager of the Company, Roger Lowman, decided to terminate the employee.

Based on this, the employee filed a claim for retaliation.  Such a claim requires proof that the employee engaged in protected activity, that her employer took adverse employment action against her, and that there was a causal link between both events.  The Court found that the employee established that she did engage in protected activity by complaining to Price about the discrimination, and that her termination was an adverse employment action.  However, the Court took issue with the evidence the employee presented regarding the causal link between the two.

The Company claimed that its termination decision was based on the employee’s falsification of time records.  The Company argued that no casual link could exist because Lowman, the Manager responsible for the firing, was not aware that employee made a discrimination complaint to Price.  The employee’s argument was that Price assisted Lowman in investigating the time-keeping infraction; and therefore, Price directly influenced the decision to terminate her.

The Court stated that the employee failed to establish a causal link between the complaint of discrimination made to Price and Lowman’s termination decision.  In the Court’s view, Price must have done more than merely influence the decision to terminate her.  Even if a supervisor has a “substantial influence” or plays a “significant” role in the ultimate termination decision, this does not mean the supervisor is the one principally responsible for the decision.  The employee failed to demonstrate that Price possessed such authority within the Company as to be viewed as the person “principally” responsible for the decision.

Based on this decision, a business should carefully consider to whom it gives final decision-making authority concerning formal employment actions.