4th Circuit Reverses Trial Court, Finds Worker’s Wrongful Discharge and Retaliation Claims Should Have Proceeded

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit decided that a significant portion of an employee’s lawsuit should have proceeded when she was terminated just six days after she complained about age discrimination at work.  The case is Buchhagen v. ICF International, Inc., et al., and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a District Court’s decision to dismiss the worker’s claims for wrongful discharge and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

Under federal law, a court should only grant a motion to dismiss a complaint at the onset of litigation if the complaint does not allege any facts that could plausibly state a legal claim.  Nevertheless, whether to dismiss the employee’s age discrimination claim was a close question because the employee alleged that the same supervisor that ultimately fired her had hired her when she was 64 years old and had also provided her with a significantly higher salary than the one originally offered.  Although these facts lent support to the company’s argument that the company did not discriminate against the employee, the Court reiterated that it is obliged to accept the employee’s factual allegations as true at the start of litigation.  Accordingly, the employee was plausibly entitled to relief for unlawful age discrimination because the employee was 67 years old when she was fired and was replaced by a substantially younger employee.

The District Court also erred by dismissing the employee’s retaliatory discharge claim because the employee was fired only six days after complaining about age discrimination to the company’s human resources representatives.  In order to establish retaliation, an employee must have engaged in “protected oppositional activity.”  Here, the employee’s complaint to HR was protected because the employee’s belief that the company violated the ADEA was “reasonable.”  In other words, even if the company’s actions do not ultimately amount to unlawful age discrimination, Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision protects activity in opposition to employment actions that an employee reasonably believes to be unlawful.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held that her retaliation claim should not have been dismissed.

Although the employee’s wrongful discharge and retaliation claims were reinstated, the Fourth Circuit did agree with the District Court’s dismissal of the employee’s hostile work environment claim.  The employee alleged that her supervisor “mockingly” yelled at her during one meeting, harped on her mistakes, made snide comments, played favorites, and unfairly scrutinized her work.  Such allegations fell “far short” of being severe or pervasive.  In relying upon its earlier precedent, the Court reminded employees that “workplaces are not always harmonious locales, and … bruised or wounded feelings will not . . . satisfy the severe or pervasive standard.”

After this decision, the employee’s wrongful discharge and retaliation claims were remanded back to the District Court to proceed with litigation.

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