Employees sometimes believe they can stop a pending termination merely by filing an EEOC complaint. The implied threat: That they’ll sue for retaliation if they do, in fact, get fired. That won’t work if the employer can show it would have fired the employee anyway.
Recent case: After working as a correctional officer at the Lee County Detention Center for nearly four years, Crystal became a member of the Pentecostal Church, which teaches that women may not wear “clothing pertaining to a man’s garments,” such as pants. She had previously worn the shirt and pants issued by the county, as sheriff’s department policies require. Following her conversion, Crystal asked if she could wear a skirt in lieu of pants.
After back-and-forth discussions, the department told Crystal it wouldn’t make an exception and that she would lose her job if she didn’t comply. She then took vacation and filed an EEOC complaint. When she returned to work in a skirt, she was terminated.
Crystal sued, alleging retaliation for filing the EEOC complaint.
The court tossed out her case. It noted the county showed it would have terminated her anyway and was ready to do so before she went on vacation. Therefore, firing her couldn’t be retaliation for filing the complaint. (Finnie v. Lee County, No. 12-60623, 5th Cir., 2013)
Final note: Crystal’s lawsuit didn’t raise issues related to religion and accommodation of religious needs. However, given the type of job she had, chances are that a dress code that includes wearing pants in a prison environment could be defended on safety grounds.
Advice: Regardless, think through dress policies to make sure they don’t unnecessarily interfere with religious expression. As long as it doesn’t impose an undue burden, reasonably accommodate employees’ religious needs whenever possible.