Employment discrimination laws prohibiting retaliation are not meant to give employees the right to sue their employer over petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience, but rather are to address employer actions that could well dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. In a May 17, 2013 decision, the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals applied that law to a recent case wherein it agreed with the Puerto Rico federal trial court in the case of Neysa Colón v. Infotech Aerospace Service, Inc., et al that Colón could not go to trial on her claims of unlawful employment retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The First Circuit Court of Appeals, in addition to hearing cases from the federal Puerto Rico federal trial court hears cases from New Hampshire and Massachusetts federal trial courts and therefore decisions from that Court of Appeals are binding legal precedent for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire employers and employees alike.
Infotech Aerospace Service, Inc. is a Puerto Rico corporation specializing in the design and supply of aerospace products for military, commercial, and industrial application. From April 30, 2007 through her resignation of March 8, 2010, Colón was employed as a Human Resource Generalist and oversaw benefits and compensation of employees.
Colón’s boss, Luis Mercado, the Human Resource Manager, decided to cross train four of the Human Resource employees, including Colón, in other areas within the Human Resource Department so as to create a more flexible work force and to ensure that all functions of the Human Resource Department could be performed even in the absence of an employee who usually regularly performed them. Colón was assigned to new “Business Partner” responsibilities which made her the Human Resource point person of contact for employees within various departments at the company. Colón, among other claims, stated the new position was a demotion in retaliation of her raising discrimination concerns from her recent report in an Affirmative Action Plan she prepared which showed compensation discrimination. However, Colón’s job title, salary, and benefits remained the same and her performance review for that year was favorable. Moreover, Colón had participated in a similar cross-training exercise in the prior year which also assigned to her some “Business Partner” responsibilities.
Colón also claimed that she was retaliated against as a result of a three-day paid administrative leave for her failure to keep confidential certain pay records of a female employee and a male co-employee which she had obtained as part of her performing her job in investigating a claim of unequal pay by the female employee. However that suspension was after she admitted to providing confidential pay record information to the Puerto Rico State Insurance Fund Corporation and admitted that she had the confidential salary information on her “pin drive” and her personal H drive; both of which are violations of the company’s confidentiality policies. The company decided that Colón had violated the confidentiality policy and upon her return to work from her three-day paid administrative leave she was to receive a written warning which would inform her that future disciplinary infractions might result in termination of her employment. There was no additional disciplinary action contemplated at that time. Instead of returning to work, Colón quit claiming she was compelled to resign.
The Court noted that the job change, which Colón classified as a demotion, had no effect on her salary or job title and was applied to other similarly situated employees without complaint. The mere fact that it was in temporal proximity between that decision and her claim to report compensation discrimination was not enough to allow the case to go to a jury. As to the 2009 suspension, the Court noted it was justified because Colón unquestionably violated the confidentiality policies by keeping confidential salary information both on her personal computer drive. The result was the Court found that no reasonable fact finder could resolve issues in Colón’s favor and therefore the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the employer was justified.
The detailed facts recited in the court’s decision revealed that if Colón had accepted responsibility for her mistake and put effort into work rather than overreacting to a well warranted disciplinary action, she would still have her job.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected]