Appeals court sides with HR manager in retaliation case

Lawsuit against former employer has been revived

Appeals court sides with HR manager in retaliation case

HR managers aren’t exempt from the federal law banning retaliation against workers who report discrimination, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.

Marie Patterson, former HR manager at Georgia Pacific, sued the Atlanta-based paper products company in 2018 for retaliation. She claims her supervisors fired her just days after learning that she had recently been deposed in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against a former employer, a Texas hospital operator.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits retaliation against workers who have either “opposed any practice” barred by the law or participated in a discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

However, Georgia Pacific argues that Patterson was fired for poor performance and excessive absences.

Read more: What Supreme Court’s PAGA ruling means for California employers

In 2020, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Beaverstock in Mobile, AL dismissed Patterson’s lawsuit, ruling that because she had testified against her former employer, she couldn’t hold Georgia Pacific liable for retaliation. The judge also said that HR managers aren’t protected when they oppose discrimination in the course of their job duties, only if they file personal complaints.

The U.S. appeals court rejected Beaverstock’s claims and has revived the lawsuit for further proceedings, Reuters reported. A three-judge panel argued that the exception didn’t exist in the text of Title VII, which broadly protects workers who oppose any unlawful practice, “not only those allegedly committed by their current employers.”

“Opposition is opposition, whether the opposer is drawing a manager’s salary or not,” wrote Circuit Judge Ed Carnes.

Earlier this month, an ex-HR officer at Eli Lilly and Co. sued the Indianapolis-based drugmaker, alleging the company fired her for reporting manufacturing violations at a plant in Branchburg, NJ. Amrit Mula, head of HR at the plant for eight years, is seeking unspecified damages for Lilly’s alleged “unlawful retaliation” and violation of New Jersey’s employee protection law.

The U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation at the plant last year following a Reuters story that detailed some of Mula's allegations. In the lawsuit, Muta says starting in 2018, she repeatedly pressured site leaders to remedy manufacturing violations involving several biologic drugs, including type 2 diabetes medicine Trulicity. Mula says she witnessed Lilly employees failing to comply with FDA-mandated standard operating procedures, failing to report contaminations, improperly disposing caustic substances into waterways and falsifying quality assurance testing documents.

When reporting these individuals and instances, Mula was repeatedly told to stop, she alleges. Roughly five weeks after sending an internal letter to management pressuring leadership at the plant to take action, she was dismissed. Lilly “executives responded by marginalizing, harassing and eventually terminating her position under false pretenses,” the suit says.

Her termination was “disguised as a job elimination,” according to the lawsuit. However, after taking over as CEO of Lilly in 2017, David Ricks installed cost-cutting measures which reduced Lilly’s workforce by 8%, Fierce Pharma reported. That’s when Mula says she began hearing complaints from employees of violations, including falsification of records.

“The allegations asserted by Ms. Mula in her recently filed employment retaliation complaint relate to the same baseless claims Ms. Mula made in the press over a year ago.  Lilly continues to deny these allegations and looks forward to the opportunity to defend itself in court,” Lilly said in a statement.

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