HR Managers Protected From Retaliation, 11th Circuit Rules

Author: David B. Weisenfeld

July 15, 2022

HR managers and other managerial-level employees are not exempt from retaliation protections under federal civil rights law, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In Patterson v. Georgia Pacific, the Atlanta-based federal appellate court held that Title VII's anti-retaliation protection extends to any of an employer's employees, meaning all of them.

The case involved an HR manager who was fired one week after giving a deposition in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against a former employer. Her boss asked her if she supported the employer and the manager responded that she had testified "on behalf of the ladies."

The district court had dismissed the case on the grounds that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision did not apply to HR managers acting in the course of their employment duties, and because the deposition involved a former employer rather than her then-current employer.

But the 11th Circuit soundly rejected that finding. Title VII's opposition clause protects any employee who "has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice," the appellate court explained, saying there is no managerial exception to be found. As a result, this clause applies to HR managers just as it does to other employees.

The 11th Circuit also found it irrelevant that the alleged retaliation that the HR manager testified about involved a former employer's conduct. "There is nothing in the anti-retaliation provision's opposition clause that permits an employer to retaliate against one of its employees for opposing an unlawful employment practice of a former employer," wrote Circuit Judge Ed Carnes.

The ruling sends a strong message (had there been any doubt) that Title VII provides broad protections from retaliation regardless of an employee's job level. Several other appellate courts - including the 2nd, 4th and 6th Circuits - have similarly rejected a managerial exception in the context of Title VII retaliation claims.