On April 14, 2020, in a published decision, the New Jersey Appellate Division in Rios v. Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center, held that a plaintiff who alleged he was retaliated against by his employer in connection with the defense of a co-worker’s lawsuit does not have to first demonstrate that his co-worker had a good faith basis for bringing her suit as a prerequisite to his retaliation claim.
Plaintiff, Emiliano Rios, was an emergency medical technician (EMT) employed by the Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center (the Hospital). He began working for the Hospital in August 2012. In November 2013, Rios’ co-worker, Heather Bailey, was terminated and a few months later, she filed a sexual harassment complaint against the Hospital. Rios was not involved in, nor did he have any knowledge related to, Bailey’s claims. Nevertheless, during the defense of the Bailey lawsuit, Rios’ supervisor repeatedly told him that he “needed to play ball and help the hospital,” which allegedly entailed telling the Hospital’s lawyers that Bailey had created a hostile work environment while she worked there, and that Rios did not want to come to work because of it. Rios alleged he was further instructed to collect written complaints from his co-workers making these same accusations against Bailey, and also to file a restraining order against Bailey. If he refused, Rios’ supervisors told him he would not be considered for promotion to Assistant Director of EMS.
Rios told his supervisor that he felt uncomfortable with these requests, and that the statements he was being asked to make against his former co-worker Bailey were not true. Rios also refused to instruct other co-workers to write similar statements and submit them to the defense attorneys, and refused to file a restraining order against Bailey. After he allegedly refused to participate in his employer’s requests related to Bailey’s lawsuit, Rios was stripped of his job responsibilities and eventually fired. Rios filed suit against Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center, asserting that his termination was retaliatory.
Trial Court’s Decision
The trial court granted the Hospital’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed Rios’ Complaint on the grounds that he was unable to prove whether he had a good faith and reasonable belief in the underlying discrimination complaint filed by Bailey. In doing so, the Court relied on the 2007 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Carmona v. Resorts Int’l Hotel, which established the requirement that plaintiffs first demonstrate that the original Complaint alleging unlawful conduct had been filed in good faith, before the Court would entertain the derivative retaliation action. The lower court reiterated the standard that “the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that his or her original complaint, the one that allegedly triggered his or her employer’s retaliation, was made reasonably and in good faith.” The trial court interpreted that to mean that Bailey’s complaint was the crux of the analysis, and found that because Rios admitted that he had no knowledge of the basis for Bailey’s claims in her lawsuit, he could not demonstrate that her complaint was brought in good faith, and consequently his retaliation claim was not sustainable under the Carmona standard.
The Appellate Division Decision
In reversing the trial court’s dismissal and reinstating Rios’ claims, the Appellate Division found that while the Carmona standard is still applicable for some retaliation claims involving previously filed lawsuits, the Supreme Court decision did not create a one-size-fits-all ruling. The Court must first determine what facts the plaintiff’s retaliation claim is based upon. In Rios’ circumstances, his allegations as to why he claimed he was retaliated against had nothing to do with the merits of Bailey’s claims. Rather, they were based upon the subsequent actions of his employer in attempting to coerce Rios into lying and fabricating statements against Bailey so the Hospital could bolster its defense against Bailey’s lawsuit. Rios therefore did not need have to have knowledge of, or a reasonable good faith belief in, Bailey’s initial discrimination complaint, because his allegations were independent of any sexual harassment claims Bailey had made.
The Appellate Division reiterated that the critical piece of the analysis is to first determine what protected action triggered the retaliation the plaintiff alleged in his complaint. Rios alleged that he was retaliated against because he refused his employer’s requests to file for a restraining order, and refused to provide and obtain false statements about his co-worker. The Court explained that the Hospital’s directives to Rios, “if true, describe a paradigm of retaliatory conduct the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) expressly prohibits,” sufficient to satisfy the prerequisite that Rios had a good faith belief that the conduct he opposed was unlawful.
The Rios decision does not change the general requirement that an employee alleging retaliation by an employer must demonstrate that he had a good faith, reasonable belief in the facts underlying his claim. However, Rios makes the distinction that the Court must first examine the basis for the retaliation claim- if the basis is a previously filed discrimination complaint, then the Court examines whether the plaintiff can demonstrate that that complaint was brought in good faith. If the basis is another set of facts, as here, where Rios claimed that he refused his employee’s instructions to retaliate against a former coworker who had sued the employer, the test is whether Rios was reasonable in his belief that what his employer was asking him to do violated the NJLAD, and he was retaliated against for his refusal.
It is important that managerial employees be counseled to understand that investigations into the allegations of a complaint brought by an employee are just that – factual investigations. The goal is to ascertain the facts as they are known, or not known, by other employees. Ironically, Rios admitted that he did not witness or know of any facts that would have supported Bailey’s claim against her employer. But, if Rios’ allegations are true, the Hospital took it one step too far when it asked Rios to “play ball” and fabricate scenarios to bolster its defense against his co-worker’s claims.
Supervisors and other employees must take care not to “steer” or otherwise attempt to influence individuals in preparation of a defense against a discrimination complaint, or the employer may later face a retaliation suit brought by another employee who was asked to unlawfully interfere.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices to avoid liability, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group here or Counsel Erica M. Clifford, Esq. via email or 973-533-0777.