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What are an employee’s rights if a discrimination claim fails?

When people suspect discrimination in the workplace, one of the things they worry most about is what will happen to them if they file a complaint. Both Minnesota and federal anti-discrimination laws prohibit employer retaliation when employees stand up for their rights. Nonetheless, many people fear that their employers will take some revenge anyway, especially if their claims fail.

Employer retaliation does happen, and sometimes it’s not subtle. In the case of a former associate attorney at one Boston law firm, however, the question before a judge is whether the law firm took retribution in violation of the former employee’s rights — or if its actions were perfectly legal.

The plaintiff is an African-American man who joined the defendant firm in 2005 after working at other large practices. During that period, however, a partner at the firm asked him to serve as the “token black associate” at a client meeting. Someone else at the firm made a joke using the ‘N’ word. Ultimately, he ended up filing a race discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As is common in big law firms, he was given a period of time to earn partnership or move on. He did move on — putting him beyond the reach of any retaliation, or so he thought.

Unfortunately, after an initial evaluation of the complaint, the EEOC sent the man a letter saying it found no triable discrimination claim and quoted an allegation by the firm that the man himself had committed misconduct against another firm employee.

Later, the EEOC reevaluated the case and determined there was reason to believe the discrimination had occurred, but that second letter came a bit tardily.

The firm took its vengeance on the lawyer by sending the EEOC’s first letter to the legal gossip site “Above the Law,” which printed it to his great embarrassment. It also refused to write the letters of recommendation he had been promised.

Ultimately, the EEOC race discrimination complaint failed. The attorney, however, has brought a new lawsuit against the firm for illegal retaliation. The firm has refused to settle, and the case goes to trial on Nov. 11.

If you think your employer may be discriminating against you, it can be helpful to talk to an attorney before you take any action. With good planning based on experience, you may be able to avoid employer retaliation and protect your rights.

Source: The National Law Journal, “Boston’s Ropes & Gray Headed to Trial on Race-Bias Claims,” Sheri Qualters, Oct. 15, 2013

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