9th Circuit Sets Low Bar on Employer Liability for Employees' Conduct

Poland was with the Customs Service in Denver. Hillberry was his supervisor. Hillberry demonstrated some anti-age animus towards Poland. Poland at some point filed a charge of discrimination. Later, Hillberry requested an administrative review of Poland's management of subordinates. The reviewers found that Poland engaged in unprofessional conduct as a manager. As a result, Poland was demoted to a non-supervisory job and transferred to Vienna Virginia.
Poland accepted the transfer, but retired 3 years before the mandatory retirement age.

Poland sued for, among other things, retaliation and constructive discharge. He said that the administrative review was retaliation for his age discrimination claim. The trial court awarded damages for constructive discharge and retaliation.

The Ninth Circuit reversed on the constructive discharge claim. 2/3 of the judges said that Poland did not establish his working conditions were intolerable merely because he was demoted and transferred. Among other things, the court noted that Poland worked 5 months in Virginia, contradicting his argument the transfer created intolerable conditions.

The really significant part of the case, though, is the Ninth Circuit's stance on liability for actions taken by innocent superiors on the basis of lower level employees' complaints. Hillberry did instigate the investigation into Poland's conduct, true. But the court did not rely on that alone and said that Hillberry's referral alone would not have been enough. Rather, the court focused on the fact that the investigators had access to Hillberry's notes, that Hillberry gave the list of witnesses to the investigators, and that the panel relied on performance reviews that had increased in frequency after Poland filed his first discrimination complaint.

In upholding Poland's claim, the court announced the rule for holding employers liable for negative, non-discriminatory actions taken on the basis of an employee's complaint that is tainted by bias:

We hold that if a subordinate, in response to a plaintiff’s protected activity, sets in motion a proceeding by an independent decisionmaker that leads to an adverse employment action, the subordinate’s bias is imputed to the employer if the plaintiff can prove that the allegedly independent adverse employment decision was not actually independent because the biased subordinate influenced or was involved in the decision or decisionmaking process.

The court added that if the investigation is "entirely independent" of the subordinate's influence, the animus of the retaliating employee is not imputed to the employer.

So, if an employee engages in protected activity by complaining against a manager, that manager cannot be the impetus for negative treatment against the complaining employee, unless an "entirely independent" investigation finds the negative treatment is justified. Otherwise, the odds of a retaliation finding are very high.

The case is Poland v. Chertoff. Opinion is here.