When Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center employee Emilio Rios was asked to “help the hospital” by telling a false story and participate in other activities designed to hurt a former colleague who’d filed a sexual harassment complaint against the facility, he refused and ended up being fired as a result. He filed a claim of retaliatory termination in hopes that the legal system would provide relief, only to have the hospital’s motion for summary judgment granted on the grounds that he couldn’t prove that he’d been fired because he believed in his colleague’s claims. Since his retaliation case had not been filed based on the former colleague’s claims but instead on his refusal to fabricate a statement against her, he appealed the lower court’s decision to the New Jersey Appellate Division. That court agreed with Rios, making clear that there was no need for him to have believed in her claims in order to be retaliated against for refusing to lie.
Though the case involved significant complexity, it established an important point of clarification on the requirements of bringing a retaliation claim. The situation began with the sexual harassment claim filed against the hospital by Rios’ former colleague, Heather Bailey. Though Rios had no knowledge of Bailey’s claims and no involvement with her harassment, his supervisor approached him to tell him that he “needed to play ball” by indicating that Bailey had created a hostile work environment that had impacted his willingness to report to work. The supervisor also insisted that he collect similar complaints from other coworkers and file a restraining order against her. When Rios indicated that he was unwilling to comply his supervisor indicated he would no longer be eligible for a promised promotion. His previous responsibilities were diminished and he was eventually terminated, leading to his retaliation lawsuit.
When the trial court considered his case, they referred to a previously-decided case that created a requirement that a claim of unlawful conduct had been filed in good faith before retaliation could be inferred. Rios’ testimony that he had no knowledge of Bailey’s situation or whether it was brought in good faith seemingly eliminated his eligibility under that case. But the Appellate division’s review and reversal clarified that the retaliation claim was about Rios’ situation rather than about Bailey’s. The court said that the claim was about retaliation for him having refused his supervisor’s attempt to recruit him in falsely disparaging his former colleague rather than about what had happened to her, and therefore stood alone.
The court’s decision makes clear that an employee that files a retaliation claim against an employer must have a reasonable belief in what they are accusing the employer of having done, but also that employees cannot be pressed to act unlawfully or unethically in support of their employer. If you believe that an adverse employment action is an act of retaliation against you, we can help. Contact us today to set up a time to discuss your situation.