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First Circuit Says Title VII Offers Workers a Broad Shield

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A federal appeals court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offers employees broad protection against reprisal when they oppose workplace discrimination — even if they didn’t originally claim that an employer’s bias violated Title VII.

Saying it “cannot accept” a lower court’s dismissal of a retaliation claim by a female firefighter in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found no merit in the idea that Title VII covers only retaliation against complaints citing that law.

“[N]othing in the language of the statute or common sense suggests that [the firefighter was] required to mention Title VII in order to be protected,” a three-judge panel held in Rodríguez-Vives v. Puerto Rico Firefighters Corps, allowing the case to move forward. “The opposition for which she alleges she was punished … fell well within the scope of the conduct that Congress sought to protect.”

By interpreting a whistleblower law in order to preserve its remedial intent, the court echoed other recent high-profile decisions. The Third Circuit applied similar logic last year to the anti-retaliation provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example, saying that a “formalistic approach” to pleading would undercut the intent of whistleblower protection laws.

This week’s decision also provided some welcome sunshine for Title VII retaliation plaintiffs specifically: The U.S. Supreme Court may have made it harder to win such cases with its Nassar ruling in June, but at least Rodríguez-Vives can help them to reach a jury.

The female firefighter in this case, Kathy Rodríguez-Vives, claimed she was punished for filing an earlier lawsuit that alleged she was denied a job because of her gender, in violation of her constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. A settlement in that case required the Firefighters Corps to hire Ms. Rodríguez-Vives as a “transitory” firefighter until she completed training, but she said she faced further discrimination almost immediately.

In particular, said Ms. Rodríguez-Vives, she didn’t get training that was given to her peers; she was excluded from some workplace activities; and she faced abusive language and actions.

According to the lower court in Puerto Rico, these claims lacked specifics and therefore weren’t plausible as “materially adverse” actions — and weren’t forbidden by Title VII anyhow, since Ms. Rodríguez-Vives based her original lawsuit on a different theory.

Nonsense, said the First Circuit: In her original lawsuit Ms. Rodríguez-Vives opposed hiring bias, “precisely the kind of discrimination Title VII was intended to combat,” and her claims of retaliatory treatment had a “cumulative weight” that made it unnecessary to demand further details.

In order to proceed to discovery, the panel said, plaintiffs “need not allege every fact necessary to win at trial” — they merely must “plead enough facts to make entitlement to relief plausible in light of the evidentiary standard that will pertain at trial.”

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