US Law Week

Kia Motors Dodges HR Manager Retaliation Claim at 11th Cir. (1)

July 29, 2020, 5:01 PM; Updated: July 29, 2020, 9:24 PM

Kia Motors Corp. won’t have to face retaliation claims from a former human resources manager after the full Eleventh Circuit found her perceived involvement in encouraging a coworker to file an EEOC claim or sue the company wasn’t protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The case explores the extent of the federal law’s protections against retaliation for HR staff. It’s a question the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit historically has resolved through a balancing test to weigh the anti-discrimination goals of Title VII against an employer’s interests in minimizing disruptions to the business and handling complaints internally whenever possible.

In its split decision after reviewing the case en banc, the Eleventh Circuit upheld a lower court’s summary judgment in favor of Kia. The Eleventh Circuit agreed Andrea Gogel’s actions in opposing alleged workplace discrimination didn’t merit protection from retaliation because they weren’t reasonable under the circumstances.

“Gogel’s efforts to recruit an employee to sue the company so clearly conflicted with the performance of her job duties as the manager of the Team Relations department that it rendered her ineffective in that position and reasonably prompted Kia to conclude that it could no longer trust her to do the job for which she was being paid,” Judge Elizabeth L. Branch wrote in the majority opinion.

Gogel acknowledged she provided the name of an attorney to a coworker and that Gogel and the coworker used the same attorney to file EEOC complaints. Kia fired Gogel in January 2011 and alleged it no longer could trust her in an HR manager position because she had encouraged at least one worker to file a discrimination complaint and could encourage others. The company said Gogel violated an agreement not to discuss her EEOC complaint or to influence others toward filing EEOC claims against Kia.

Gogel also had argued the real reason Kia fired her was because she had filed an EEOC complaint alleging discrimination, but the majority opinion found she failed to prove this claim.

In one of two dissenting opinions, Judge Beverley B. Martin wrote the case should have been returned to a trial court to let a jury “decide the facts in dispute about Kia’s true motivations for firing Ms. Gogel.”

“Andrea Gogel was fired after she challenged gender discrimination at Kia Motors Manufacturing, Georgia,” Martin wrote.

Meredith Carter, one of the Atlanta attorneys representing Gogel, said she is considering possible next steps in the case and is concerned about the precedent it might set.

“We’re worried about whether workers in this circuit are going to be denied protection under Title VII based on their job duties,” Carter said. Her co-counsel in the case is Atlanta attorney Lisa C. Lambert.

Attorneys representing Kia were pleased with the decision and the court’s “thoughtful and thorough analysis of the legal issues and the record,” said Jonathan Martin, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP in Macon, Ga.

Martin and Bill M. Clifton, also of Constangy, were joined by Richard Valladares of Greenberg Traurig LLP in Atlanta in representing Kia.

The case attracted amicus briefs from a handful of interested parties, including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC sided with Gogel in a March 2017 brief, arguing her actions merited anti-retaliation protection under Title VII and that she had presented enough evidence to justify a jury trial.

New Rule or 40-Year Standard?

In the second dissenting opinion, Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum wrote that the majority opinion created a new rule for Title VII protections that would broadly immunize employers from firing HR staff who discuss the EEOC complaint process with employees.

“The Majority Opinion’s new rule has the potential to inflict a devastating blow to the Title VII rights of both human-resources employees and the employees they serve,” wrote Rosenbaum.

The decision threatens the ability of the estimated 775,000 human resources professionals in the U.S. workforce to help achieve Title VII’s goal of stopping workplace discrimination, she wrote.

Branch, in authoring the majority opinion, disagreed with this depiction and wrote that her decision fell in line with 40-year-old case law within the circuit.

An employee’s conduct to oppose discriminatory workplace practices loses its Title VII protection “when the manner chosen to voice that opposition so interferes with the employee’s performance of her job that it renders her ineffective in the position for which she was employed,” Branch wrote, citing the circuit’s 1980 decision in Rosser v. Laborers’ International Union of North America.

The case also drew three full and partial concurrences, part of a splintered decision among the 12 judges who considered the case. Seven judges signed onto the majority opinion, two others partially concurred, and the remaining three judges all signed onto the two separate dissenting opinions.

The majority’s decision departs from the majority of a 2-1 panel decision from September 2018. In that ruling, the majority considered the fact that before giving her coworker an attorney’s name, Gogel had tried to address discrimination complaints through internal channels many times but found the process insufficient.

In line with the dissenting opinion from that panel decision, the Eleventh Circuit majority found it would be unreasonable to force an employer to keep a person in an HR position where they handle sensitive complaints after the person had violated company policy by referring a complainant to an attorney.

The case is Gogel v. Kia Motors Mfg. Ga., 11th Cir., No. 16-16850, 7/29/20.

(Updates throughout with additional reporting.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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