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WA Court Affirms Anti-Retaliation Laws Protect HR Employees

February 21, 2013

Stoel-Rives
From Stoel Rives LLP – World of Work
by Nate Bailey

The Washington Court of Appeals recently determined that state anti-discrimination laws prohibit retaliation against human resources and legal professionals who oppose discrimination as part of their normal job duties. The court also declined to extend the same actor inference, a defense against discrimination claims, to retaliation claims.

Lodis worked at Corbis Holdings as a vice president of human resources. As part of his normal job duties, he warned Corbis’s CEO, Shenk, that Shenk’s age-related comments could give rise to liability for age discrimination. Around the same time, Shenk promoted Lodis but almost immediately gave him a negative performance review, placed him on probation, and then ultimately fired him. 

Lodis sued under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), claiming that Corbis retaliated against him for opposing Shenk’s comments. The trial court concluded that Lodis was not engaged in protected activity “because he was simply performing his job duties by warning Shenk” about potential discrimination. The court of appeals disagreed.

Step Outside Rule

Corbis urged the court to adopt the “step outside” rule, which governs federal cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The rule requires an employee to step outside her normal job duties before receiving the FLSA’s protection against retaliation.

The court declined to adopt the rule for two reasons. First, the court believed that the language of the WLAD could not support a step outside rule. Second, the court concluded that policy considerations favored rejecting the rule. “[A]dopting the step outside rule,” the court said, “would strip human resources, management, and legal employees of WLAD protection.” The court noted the importance of protecting these employees because they are often the most able to oppose workplace discrimination.

Same Actor Inference

Corbis also argued that the court should apply the same actor inference to dismiss Lodis’s retaliation claim.  The same actor inference arises when an employee is both hired and fired by the same decision-makers in a short period of time.  Courts may then infer that the employee was not fired for any attribute that the decision-makers were aware of when they hired her.  Corbis contended that Shenk promoting Lodis despite the warning about potential discrimination proved that he did not retaliate when he later fired Lodis.

The court, however, refused to extend the same actor inference to retaliation claims.  The court was concerned that extending the defense would allow employers to simply promote employees before terminating them to avoid valid retaliation claims.

Thus, Lodis v. Corbis Holdings, Inc. limits the same actor defense to traditional discrimination cases. And perhaps more importantly, the case reaffirms that the WLAD protects all employees from retaliation.

  
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