Landmine in the Eleventh Circuit

By Joe Hunt

When Kia discovered that its human resources manager had encouraged an employee to file a charge of discrimination, Kia discharged the HR manager.  Kia decided it could not trust the HR manager to do her job, specifically, to refer employees to the internal complaint system, protecting Kia from litigation.  The HR manager sued for retaliation, asserting that Kia fired her because she had engaged in protected activity under Title VII.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Kia, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed.  The HR manager’s deviation from Kia’s internal procedures and her support for the employee’s filing a charge could have been a violation of the HR manager’s job duties.  In this case, however, the HR manager had tried to use Kia’s internal procedure for addressing complaints of discrimination, and the procedure had proven insufficient.  Thus, the court found it was arguably reasonable for the HR manager to encourage the complaining employee to file a charge.

A dissenting judge called the decision a “landmine” for employers.  An HR manager cannot work to resolve complaints internally while also urging coworkers to file lawsuits.  But the decision may be more of a pitfall than a landmine.  Kia’s responses to the HR manager’s internal referrals were (allegedly) so inadequate that they warranted the HR manager evading the internal system altogether.  This was the HR manager’s saving grace on appeal.

Employers’ internal reporting and investigation procedures have to work.  Otherwise, all employees, even HR employees, would be justified in going straight to the EEOC.

The case is Gogel v. Kia Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, Inc., Case 3:14-cv-00153 (11th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018).