By Jennifer Reinhardt
Stoel Rives World of Employment
Oregon Law Firm
On June 29, 2011, the Idaho Supreme Court unanimously upheld a district court ruling that a state worker could not maintain an action against her employer for wrongful discharge based on allegations that her supervisor’s intra-office romance and consequent favoritism toward his paramour created a hostile work environment. See Patterson v. State of Idaho Dep’t of Health & Welfare. In the first Idaho case of its kind, the Court found that paramour favoritism did not violate Title VII and therefore opposition to such activity is not “protected activity” under the Idaho Human Rights Act (“IHRA”).
The longtime Idaho Health & Welfare employee who initiated the action, Lynette Patterson, asserted that her boss’s affair with another worker resulted in favoritism toward the other worker and created a hostile work environment for her and others in her unit. Following Patterson’s initial complaints of her supervisor’s misconduct, the department launched an investigation into her allegations and found that although Patterson’s supervisor did in fact have an inappropriate relationship with another employee in violation of the department’s internal policy, there was no evidence to support preferential treatment. Thereafter, Patterson claims she was the victim of retaliation. Upon receiving a performance evaluation stating that she had failed to achieve performance standards, she quit her job, alleging that she was constructively discharged.
Patterson’s complaint against the department asserted constructive discharge under the IHRA and violation of the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act. Following an unfavorable summary judgment ruling, she appealed both issues to the Supreme Court.
In its analysis of Patterson’s retaliation claim under the IHRA, the Court used the Ninth Circuit’s three-prong test for a retaliation claim, which requires a plaintiff to demonstrate: 1) that she engaged in protected activity; 2) that she suffered an adverse employment action; and 3) there was a causal link between her activity and the adverse employment action. See EEOC v. Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps. Courts have found the first prong satisfied when an employee demonstrates he or she subjectively and reasonably believed that he or she was opposing activity that violates Title VII. See Little v. United Technologies, Carrier Transicold Division.
The Court found that Patterson subjectively believed she engaged in protected activity when she opposed the paramour relationship allegedly resulting in favoritism, but it concluded that such a belief was not objectively reasonable. The Court noted that a critical element of the inquiry regarding objective reasonableness of an employee’s belief that he or she is engaging in protected activity is the existing case law at the time of the incident. The case law at the time of Patterson’s resignation did not support her position. Moreover, the Court found that the favoritism, even if true, affected all concerned on a gender-neutral basis.
This decision aligns Idaho with other jurisdictions that have confronted the specific issue of paramour favoritism and ruled that paramour favoritism does not constitute gender discrimination because it affects both men and women equally. The Court’s ruling is useful to Idaho employers to the extent that it requires employees to demonstrate the reasonableness of their belief that they are engaging in protected activity under the IHRA. Notwithstanding these holdings, employers must continue to be careful about the prospect of retaliation claims, which constituted 25% of all complaints filed with the Idaho Human Rights Commission in 2010.