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Complaints directed to human resources constitute protected activity: Court


A complaint made to a human resources vice president about a colleague's racist remarks is protected activity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, says a federal appellate court in partially overruling a lower court's decision in a retaliation case.

According to Monday's ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Scott Trujillo v. Henniges Automotive Sealing Systems North America Inc., Mr. Trujillo, who was a director of global finance for New Haven, Mo.-based Henniges, had complained in September 2008 to the firm's vice president of human resources about “inappropriate or derogatory things about other races” made by the firm's operations vice president. He was fired a week later.

Before making the complaint to HR, Mr. Trujillo also had complained directly to the operations vice president about the comments he made, although in a “lighthearted way,” according to the ruling.

Mr. Trujillo filed suit, charging he was terminated in retaliation for lodging complaints regarding the racially oriented comments. A district court granted Henniges' motion for summary judgment dismissing the case.

In a 2-1 ruling, the appellate court held Mr. Trujillo's comments to the human resources director were protected under Title VII.

“Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Trujillo,” his comment to the human resources vice president “can be construed as a complaint about a hostile work environment caused by racial and national origin discrimination.”

“We have repeatedly held that complaints to human resources personnel regarding potential violations of Title VII constitute protected activity for purposes of establishing a prima facie case of retaliation,” said the ruling, which remanded the case for further proceedings on the issue.

The appellate court agreed with the lower court, however, that Mr. Trujillo did not engage in protected activity with respect to the comment he made directly to the operations vp.

“Nothing in Trujillo's responses can reasonably be construed as 'opposition' to the alleged racial character of the statement,” it said.