Employees who file EEOC complaints sometimes think they are automatically protected from anything that smacks of retaliation. They assume they can get away with almost anything as long as it is related to the EEOC complaint. Such misplaced confidence even leads some to rifle through company files looking for smoking-gun evidence of discrimination.
Bad move. Employers don’t have to put up with such outrageous antics—if they have the right policies in place.
In such cases, it’s perfectly reasonable to enforce workplace rules against copying and disseminating company documents to third parties without permission.
Recent case: Bernadine Vaughn, who is black, worked as a certified nurse’s aide caring for residents with medical problems at a retirement community. Part of her job involved administering medicine and logging to whom and when she issued prescriptions.
Vaughn filed an EEOC complaint alleging that her employer disciplined her for making mistakes that white employees got away with. Vaughn then made a copy of a medication log allegedly showing that another employee had made similar mistakes. She gave the copy to the EEOC.
When the retirement community found out, it fired her for violating a rule that specifically prohibited copying any medical records and distributing them to third parties.
Vaughn fired back with a retaliation claim.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected her claim. It reasoned that the employer had a legitimate reason for its actions: Vaughn’s violation of the rule forbidding employees from copying and disseminating medical records. Vaughn wasn’t able to show that this was just a pretext to get rid of her. The court ruled that filing an EEOC complaint didn’t give Vaughn carte blanche to violate reasonable company rules. (Vaughn v. Epworth Villa, No. 07-6005, 10th Cir., 2008)
Final note: Vaughn’s do-it-yourself behavior sunk her case. She could have asked the EEOC to get the records she copied.
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