8th Circuit: Serving as a witness in internal investigation can vindicate the rights of minorities, triggering protection under Section 1981

Ted Craig Iowa Employment and Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 01/20/2014 at 11:37 AM by Ted Craig

In Sayger v. Riceland Foods, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that participation as a witness in an internal investigation of civil rights violations is an activity that can be protected under 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, even if the witness would not otherwise be protected under Section 1981. In Sayger, a white employee brought a Section 1981 retaliatory discharge action against his employer after he participated as a witness in an internal investigation into allegedly racist remarks made by a supervisor, and was then laid off some five months later. The internal complainant (who was not Sayger) identified Sayger as a potential witness to the alleged racist remarks. Sayger was interviewed during the employer’s investigation, and told HR that he frequently heard the supervisor use offensive language about black employees. Five months later, Riceland Foods laid Sayger off. Sayger then sued for retaliation under Section 1981. Section 1981 of federal civil rights law states that “All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right . . . to make and enforce contracts [including employment contracts], to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.” But recall that Sayger was white. The question before the court was whether Sayger’s serving as a witness in the internal civil rights investigation of racist comments against blacks was conduct “vindicating the rights of minorities.” The 8th Circuit began by reminding that an individual who is not a minority may bring a “Section 1981” claim if he or she has been discriminated or retaliated against for attempting to “vindicate the rights of minorities.” The 8th Circuit ultimately held that “someone who has substantiated a complaint of a civil rights violation has demonstrated opposition to that violation and acted to vindicate the rights of minorities. Such an individual should therefore receive the same protection against retaliation as the person who filed the complaint.” The Court went on to explain that, “if employees who give evidence or respond to questions during internal inquiries into alleged discrimination are not protected from retaliation, it would impede any internal efforts to address discrimination.” Iowa employers need to take note and instruct management personnel that any employee’s participation in internal investigations of alleged racial discrimination may be protected activity under Section 1981, and may be considered an act that “vindicates the rights of minorities.” After Sayger v. Riceland Foods, Iowa employers need to carefully examine a decision to take adverse employment action against an employee who, in the past, participated in any way in an internal investigation regarding an allegation of a violation of civil rights of racial minorities.  

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed.

- Ted Craig

 

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