Georgia Pacific faces retaliatory claims from human resources worker, court says

  • Protections from retaliation extend to HR employees, court rules
  • The manager claims she was fired for testifying against her previous employer

(Reuters) – A US appeals court on Tuesday dismissed claims that human resources managers are exempt from federal law prohibiting retaliation against workers who report discrimination and reinstated a lawsuit against Georgia Pacific LLC.

A three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a federal judge in Alabama made two critical errors in dismissing HR director Marie Patterson’s lawsuit. She had accused the stationery company of firing her after she testified in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against her former employer.

The panel said the judge wrongly found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 did not protect human resource managers who “resist” discrimination in the performance of their job duties, and sent the case back to him for further consideration.

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“Opposition is opposition whether or not the opponent is on a manager’s salary,” District Judge Ed Carnes wrote.

The judge also erred in finding that because Patterson testified against her previous employer and not Georgia Pacific, her conduct was not protected by Title VII, the 11th Circuit said.

The court’s conclusions echoed arguments made by the US Employment Equality Commission, which filed a brief endorsement of Patterson last year.

Patterson’s attorney, Kurt Kastorf, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific.

Patterson sued Georgia Pacific in 2018, claiming her supervisors fired her after learning that she had recently been fired in a discrimination lawsuit against a Texas hospital operator who had previously employed her as a human resources officer.

Georgia Pacific said Patterson was fired for poor performance and excessive absenteeism.

Title VII prohibits retaliation against employees who “disobey any practice prohibited by law” or who have participated in a discrimination investigation or judicial proceeding.

US District Judge Jeffrey Beaverstock in Mobile, Alabama, said in 2020 that because Patterson testified against her former employer, she could not hold Georgia Pacific liable for retaliation.

The judge also said human resource managers are not engaging in protected activities when they oppose discrimination in the course of their professional duties, as opposed to personal complaints. Because Patterson’s job was to review her employers’ policies and handle complaints, her conduct didn’t fall under Title VII, Beaverstock said.

But the 11th Circuit said Tuesday there is no exception anywhere in the text of Title VII, and what matters under the law is employees’ conduct, not their job titles. At least three other federal appeals courts have also rejected a so-called “manager exemption.”

And Title VII broadly protects workers who defend themselves against unlawful practices, and not just those allegedly being committed by their current employers, Carnes wrote for the court.

The panel included Circuit Judges Robin Rosenbaum and Jill Pryor.

The case is Patterson v. Georgia Pacific LLC, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-12733.

For Patterson: Kurt Kastorf of the Kurt G. Kastorf Law Firm

For Georgia Pacific: Yendela Holston of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton

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Daniel Wiesner

Thomson Reuters

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) covers labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.