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Employees are protected from retaliation for filing discrimination claims such as a complaint with the EEOC or the U.S. Department of Labor. That protection starts as soon as the employee lets someone in authority at the company—whether that’s HR or a supervisor—know he’s going to contact the agency.

In one recent case, the employer tried to argue that it fired the employee before he actually filed an EEOC complaint, and therefore wasn’t engaged in protected activity. The court didn’t buy it.

Recent case: Maurice Beckwith, who is black, worked as a material handler until he was fired for allegedly uttering a racial slur.

Before that incident, Beckwith complained to HR that a supervisor had accused him of attempting to order pizzas for employees at the company’s expense. He was singled out because the pizza shop told the company that “a big black guy” placed the order. Beckwith said using that phrase was racist and told management he had reported the incident to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and his lawyers. He also said he was filing an EEOC complaint.

Shortly after, he was fired. He then filed the EEOC complaint and lawsuit. The company argued it wasn’t liable for any retaliation since Beckwith hadn’t engaged in protected activity but had merely threatened to.

The court disagreed. It said that threatening to file the EEOC complaint was also protected activity. Otherwise employers would have an incentive to fire employees before they got to the EEOC. (Beckwith v. Cortegra, No. 108-CV-168, MD NC, 2008)

Final note:
The court ended up dismissing the case anyway, based on the fact that the “big black guy” comment wasn’t racist, but was instead descriptive.

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