California HR

Avoiding Retaliation Claims: Why Employee Who Couldn’t Prove Discrimination Still Won $500,000

Francis Iwekaogwu complained for years that he was being discriminated against because of his race, threatening on more than one occasion to file a formal charge against his employer. When he finally sued and went to trial, he didn¹t win any damages for race bias. But it turned out that the jury was much more interested in Iwekaogwu’s claim that his employer had repeatedly retaliated against him for complaining – and awarded him more than a half-million dollars. This verdict demonstrates that how you react to a complaint can unwittingly turn a weak discrimination claim into a very successful retaliation suit.

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Employee Discouraged From Seeking Promotions

Iwekaogwu was a civil engineering assistant for the city of Los Angeles Department of Public Works. He was the first African-American to work in his department and consistently received favorable performance reviews. But over the years, he repeatedly complained that he was passed over for promotions and subjected to unfair treatment because of his race.For example, after passing a promotion examination, Iwekaogwu said a supervisor told him that the department was not a place to continue his professional career and that he should look for opportunities elsewhere – although he eventually did receive the promotion. Over the next few years he took and passed two other exams, but said he was never notified that he was qualified to apply for additional promotions. A white male who had not passed the exams was promoted instead.

Evaluations Turn Negative

Iwekaogwu charged that after he threatened to file a race discrimination claim, he began receiving negative job appraisals and was told he shouldn’t expect any more promotions. He was also informed that he would not be eligible for overtime, even though everyone else in the division received approval for it. Iwekaogwu said a manager told him he would have to leave the department because he was considered “a litigant and a filer of discrimination complaints.” The final straw came when the same manager drew a crime scene-like outline of a dead man outside Iwekaogwu’s office and allegedly told another employee that “someone” would be leaving the department soon.

Jury Finds Retaliation, Not Discrimination

Iwekaogwu sued the city of Los Angeles, but the jury couldn’t agree on whether he had suffered race discrimination. It did rule in favor of Iwekaogwu, however, on his claim that he was retaliated against for making a discrimination complaint, and awarded him damages of $775,000, which the court later reduced to $500,000.The California Court of Appeal upheld the verdict. The court said there was evidence of adverse employment actions taken by the city against Iwekaogwu after he threatened to file a complaint, including failing to promote him and denying him overtime, as well as statements by managers suggesting that they retaliated against him for being a litigant.

Big Risk For Employers

Retaliation lawsuits such as this one continue to be an expensive problem for employers. In fact, it has been reported that some employees who sensed they were about to be fired or disciplined actually made bogus reports about workplace safety, discrimination or some other issue so they could claim they were retaliated against when they were fired.

Train Supervisors

Because retaliation can be much easier to prove than discrimination or wrongful termination, it’s crucial to train supervisors on how to respond to employee complaints or threats of litigation. Instruct them to always take complaints seriously, report complaints to high-level managers, and let the employee know the matter will be looked into even if they don’t trust the worker’s motives. Never discipline or terminate an employee without clear documentation supporting your decision, and let plenty of time pass between the employee’s complaint and any adverse action.