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Retaliation claim doesn't require Title VII violation - 10th Circ.

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REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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  • Director reasonably believed conduct violated Title VII when it did not
  • Court revived retaliation claim stemming from firing
  • Dissent says minimal knowledge of law's scope required for retaliation claim

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(Reuters) - A split U.S. appeals court on Wednesday said it was reasonable for a former cloud-computing firm employee to believe that mistreatment of Philippines-based workers was unlawful even though it was not, and revived her lawsuit claiming she was fired for complaining.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not extend anti-bias protections to U.S. companies' foreign workers, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, but Viktorya Reznik had no way of knowing that when she worked as inContact Inc's director of project management.

The court in the 2-1 ruling said Reznik could pursue retaliation claims against inContact stemming from her firing even though she could not show she opposed conduct that was actually prohibited by Title VII.

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Reznik claimed an inContact manager abused two Filipino workers and called them "monkeys" and "not human." She says she was fired for not being "a good culture fit" shortly after reporting the conduct to company executives.

Lawyers at Jackson Lewis who represent Utah-based inContact did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did solo practitioner Philip Patterson of Ogden, Utah, who represents Reznik.

Reznik's 2020 lawsuit in Salt Lake City federal court had been dismissed in January by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jared Bennett. The judge said it was common sense that U.S. anti-discrimination law would not apply to foreign workers based abroad, so it was not reasonable for Reznik to believe she was opposing unlawful conduct.

The 10th Circuit on Tuesday disagreed.

"A reasonable employee likely knows that discrimination based on race and/or national origin is unlawful, but is likely unfamiliar with Title VII's statutory exceptions," Circuit Judge Paul Kelly wrote. "Such an employee should not be charged with such specialized legal knowledge."

Kelly was joined by Circuit Judge Robert Bacharach.

Circuit Judge Joel Carson in a brief dissent said that while Title VII does not require that conduct actually be unlawful in order to state a retaliation claim, the law does require a reasonable employee to have some minimal knowledge of its scope.

"To me, an awareness of an explicit statutory exception, excluding aliens abroad from Title VII protection, is not specialized legal knowledge," Carson wrote.

The case is Reznik v. inContact Inc, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-4007.

For Reznik: Philip Patterson

For inContact: Rick Sutherland and Christopher Moon of Jackson Lewis

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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