cd ill.bmpBy Gerald Maatman, Jr. and Jennifer Riley 

An employee’s right to file discrimination charges against his employer was reaffirmed this week despite some unusual courtroom maneuvers in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in EEOC v. Cognis Corporation, Case No. 10-CV-2182 (C.D. Ill. May 23, 2012). Judge Michael P. McCuskey granted a rare summary judgment motion for the EEOC, ruling that the defendant, Cognis Corporation, unlawfully retaliated against Steven Whitlow, a Cognis employee. The Court found that Whitlow engaged in protected activity when he revoked a “last-chance” agreement, and Cognis retaliated against him in violation of Title VII when it terminated his employment. 

At the same time, the Court denied the EEOC’s second motion for summary judgment with regard to a similar charge on behalf of a class of Cognis employees. 

Facts Of EEOC v. Cognis Corp.

The EEOC alleged that Cognis unlawfully retaliated against Whitlow after he refused to waive his right to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC – a right that is fundamental to employees. The dispute arose when Cognis denied Whitlow’s request to amend one of the corporation’s “last-chance” agreements (“LCA”) and Whitlow revoked his consent to the LCA. Id. at 7. The EEOC also alleged that Cognis unlawfully retaliated against a class of employees who it required to sign similar LCAs as a condition of their continued employment. Id. at 2. The EEOC contended that, like Whitlow, Cognis denied the class the right to make federal employment discrimination complaints as a result of the LCAs. Id.  

In an unusual procedural move, after the Court denied Cognis’ motion for summary judgment, the EEOC moved for leave to file its own motion for summary judgment.  Id. at 1-2. Typically, only the defendant is in a position to provide the high level of evidence required for such a motion. Id. at 5. Unlike most plaintiffs, however, the Court concluded that the EEOC was able to furnish direct evidence of Cognis’ retaliatory allegations – at least as to Whitlow. Id. at 7-8. 

Cognis’ insistence that the decision to fire Whitlow was independent of his refusal to be bound to the LCA was repeatedly, and thoroughly, rejected by Judge McCuskey.  Id. at 8-9. Explaining that Cognis’ argument “defies simple logic,” the Court held that no jury could reasonably conclude that Whitlow’s revocation of the agreement was not the direct cause of his termination, and as such summary judgment was appropriate. Id. at 8. 

The EEOC’s systemic claim met with less success. Unlike Whitlow, the class of employees who had signed similar LCAs were not terminated as he was, nor did the EEOC have direct evidence regarding their respective terminations as in the case of Whitlow. Id. at 14. These differences led the Court to recognize that without a “causal connection between the protected activity and… being forced to agree to the terms of the LCA in order to remain employed by Cognis” the stringent standards for summary judgment were not met. Id. The Court suggested, however, that the factual circumstances of Cognis’ conduct would likely lead a jury to find illegal retaliatory action as to the class of allegedly injured employees. Id. at 14-15. 

Implications For Employers 

The EEOC crowed about its summary judgment victory in an unusual media posting on its website. Although the decision arose in somewhat unusual factual and procedural circumstances, as the EEOC continues to adopt an increasingly aggressive strategy, employers should be on the lookout for attempts to take advantage of similar tactics in future litigation.