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May 3, 2016

Title VII, a “precise, complex, and exhaustive” statute, does not prohibit employment practices that are not specifically prohibited by the act

Title VII, a “precise, complex, and exhaustive” statute, does not prohibit employment practices that are not specifically prohibited by the act
Cooper v N.Y. State Dep’t of Labor, U S Circuit Court of Appeals, 2d Circuit, Docket #2015-3392

Winifred Cooper¸ a former New York State Department of Labor’s Director of Equal Employment Opportunity, filed suit against the Department alleging that the Department had unlawfully retaliated against her for opposing an employment practice prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and New York State’s Human Rights Law, Executive Law §§290 et seq.

In December 2012, Cooper learned that the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations [GOER] had developed a plan to “alter the means by which internal Equal Employment Opportunity [EEO] complaints were to be processed by state departments and agencies." 

In the words of the Circuit Court of Appeals, Cooper, “believing that the proposed changes materially conflicted with federal regulations because they would ‘subject the EEO complaint response process to political pressure,’ increasing the likelihood that workplace discrimination would go unredressed,” initiated a series of communications with her supervisors bring her concerns to their attention. Cooper’s position proved persuasive and GOER’s plan was altered in consideration of her views. 

Subsequently Cooper was terminated from her position. Alleging that her termination was “in retaliation for having lobbied against GOER’s proposal,”  Cooper sued. The federal district court dismissed her petition and the Circuit Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

The Circuit Court explained that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] against any individual … because he [or she] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice” within the meaning of 42 USC §2000e.* Further, said the court, “A plaintiff seeking to demonstrate that he [or she] engaged in protected activity need not show that the behavior he [or she] opposed in fact violated Title VII; he [or she] must, however, show that he [or she] “possessed a good faith, reasonable belief,” that the employer’s conduct qualified as an “unlawful employment practice” under the statute.”

However, said the court, the conduct Cooper opposed – the amendment of internal procedures in a manner that, she believed, would permit political considerations to influence the evaluation of discrimination claims – is not a “practice made an unlawful employment practice” by Title VII nor could Cooper reasonably have believed otherwise. For these reasons Cooper was not entitled to the relief she sought.Accordingly, Circuit Court affirmed the district court's dismissal of her claims.

* As an example, the Circuit Court of Appeals noted, objecting to the employer’s failure to adhere to its own affirmative action program is not protected activity because such a failure is not an “unlawful employment practice” within the meaning of Title VII.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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