Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed course in an important case in which Parker Hudson attorneys Lawrence Ashe and Justin P. Gunter filed an amicus brief asking the full Court to revisit a panel opinion. In Gogel v. Kia Motors, the en banc panel decided whether an employer could legally terminate a human resources manager who refused to perform her job responsibilities, or whether the manager’s refusal to perform her job responsibilities constituted protected opposition conduct under Title VII. Defendant Kia Motors claimed that it terminated plaintiff Andrea Gogel’s employment because she failed to perform her job responsibilities as Kia’s Team Relations Department Manager. Kia argued that Gogel had refused to investigate or report complaints of discrimination, and had instead encouraged Kia employees to sue Kia. Gogel, in response, argued that encouraging employees to sue Kia constituted opposition to discrimination, and that she was terminated for protected opposition activity in violation of Title VII.
Gogel’s argument initially found traction at the Eleventh Circuit. A split panel of the Eleventh Circuit held that a human resources professional’s refusal to perform her job responsibilities could be protected activity under Title VII if the employee believed that her employer’s anti-discrimination policies were ineffective. In such cases, a human resources professional essentially became a “free agent” who could follow her own preferred approach for combating discrimination without fear of reprisal from her employer.
On behalf of the Association of Global Automakers, Inc., Parker Hudson attorneys R. Lawrence Ashe, Jr. and Justin P. Gunter filed an amicus brief in the case, asking the Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc to reconsider the panel opinion. They explained that “an employee’s refusal to follow internal protocols for investigating and resolving discrimination complaints is not protected activity.” Moreover, they warned that the panel opinion could actually prevent the effective implementation of anti-discrimination policies: “Employers rely on their . . . HR professionals to investigate, resolve, and defend against discrimination claims.” “If a HR professional cannot be disciplined for failing to investigate and resolve discrimination claims within the framework established by the employer, the employer is deprived of an essential effective means of achieving voluntary Title VII compliance.”
Gogel’s victory was ultimately short-lived. Sitting en banc, a divided Eleventh Circuit vacated the panel opinion. The Court rejected the notion that a human resources professional could refuse to perform the job responsibilities required by her employer. Instead, the Court made clear that “an employee’s oppositional conduct under Title VII is not protected if the means by which the employee has chosen to express her opposition so interferes with the performance of her job that it renders her ineffective in the position for which she is employed.” As a result, the Court held that Gogel’s encouraging employees to sue Kia conflicted with her job responsibilities and was not protected activity under Title VII.
The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion underscores the importance of carefully defining employee job responsibilities, and internal investigation and complaint-resolution procedures, as well as the many pitfalls posed by Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions to unwary employers.