Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of Unlawful Retaliation Suit Brought By Former NY Department of Labor Employee

Plaintiff-appellant Winifred Cooper (“Cooper”) brought suit in federal court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law, alleging her former employer, the NY State Department of Labor (“DOL”), unlawfully retaliated against her for opposing an employment practice proscribed by Title VII and the NYSHRL.  The case arose from the decision to remove Cooper from her position as Director of Equal Opportunity Development, who was responsible for “ensuring that the DOL complied with federal Equal Opportunity rules and regulations.”  In that role, Cooper was a vocal opponent of a proposal by the Governor's Office of Employee Relations to “alter the means by which internal Equal Employment Opportunity complaints were to be handled by state agencies,” as she believed the proposed changes “materially conflicted with federal regulations” and would “subject the… process to political pressure.”  While the proposal was later changed to reflect her concerns, Cooper was terminated several months later, alleging her opposition was the basis for her termination.  The District Court dismissed the claim, finding Cooper could not have reasonably believed the conduct she opposed violated either statute.  Cooper appealed.

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  Under Title VII’s retaliation provisions, a plaintiff need not show that the behavior he opposed in fact violated Title VII, only that he “possessed a good faith, reasonable belief,” that the employer's conduct qualified as an “unlawful employment practice” under the statute.  However, the Court noted Title VII is “precise, complex and exhaustive,” and defines what prohibited practices with “uncharacteristic exactitude.”  Under those specific terms, employers have no obligation to maintain any particular procedures for handling internal complaints under Title VII.  As such, the proposed procedures were not conduct Cooper could have reasonably believed violated the statute. 

In conclusion, while “mindful that when an employer punishes an employee for conduct intended to secure equality in the workplace, it does little to further—and may hinder—Title VII's primary objective of eradicating invidious discrimination in employment,” the Court found Cooper’s “argument stretches our precedents and the text of Title VII well past their breaking points.”  The Second Circuit thus affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Cooper’s claim.

The case was Cooper v. New York State Dep't of Labor, 2016 WL 1639741 (2d Cir. 2016)

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