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What is the Role of HR?

August 5, 2020

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

It is generally thought of that HR is on the side of management, although at times they will mediate between management and employees.  However, what are the rights of an employer when an HR employee assists an employee with the filing of an EEOC charge against the employer?

Andrea Gogel was the manager of the Team Relations Department of Kia Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, Inc., a subsidiary of the Korean Kia Motors Corporation. The overall purpose of the Team Relations department was to “support an environment of positive team relations.” To that end, Ms. Gogel’s department was charged with developing policies and standards concerning employee behavior. These policies included harassment policies and an EEOC policy.

During her time at Kia, Gogel heard many complaints about how women and Americans were treated at the Korean-owned company. She experienced similar treatment herself and, in her view, had been denied a promotion because she is a woman and an American. Eventually, Gogel decided to file an EEOC charge about the discrimination she had suffered.

Two other Kia employees filed EEOC charges not long after Gogel, each represented by the same law firm as Gogel. For one specifically, Gogel tried to conduct an investigation but Kia stopped her.  In January of 2011, Kia terminated Gogel, believing that she had solicited or encouraged Kia employees to file a lawsuit against the company.  Two of Gogel’s subordinates indicated that she met with the other filing employees multiple times around November 2010. Notably, Gogel gave one of the reporting employees, Diana Ledbetter, the name of her attorney.

At the trial court, Kia was granted summary judgement.  On appeal to the 11th Circuit of Appeals, the court initially overturned the summary judgement.  The court found that Title VII’s opposition clause usually protects employees who help a coworker file an EEOC charge.  Protected status is based on reasonableness of the actions, which is evaluated case by case.  The court has held in past cases that HR employees who violate complaint reporting policies may have acted unreasonably.  In this situation, the court had found that Gogel exhausted her obligations under Kia’s complaint reporting framework due to Kia’s conduct and still had protection.

Kia appealed for en banc ruling (a ruling by all judges sitting on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals).  The en banc panel overturned the appellate ruling, confirming the dismissal of the case.  The court stated that “Gogel’s efforts to recruit an employee to sue the company so clearly conflicted with the performance of her job duties as the manager of the Team Relations department that it rendered her ineffective in that position and reasonably prompted Kia to conclude that it could no longer trust her to do the job for which she was being paid.” Gogel lost legal protection when she encouraged Diana Ledbetter to file a race bias suit.

However, there was a strong dissent, who felt that the majority glossed over the actions of Kia which led to Gogel’s actions.  The dissent stated that  “[t]he majority opinion … goes off the rails when it ignores the rest of what our precedent requires; that is, today’s ruling effectively immunizes employers’ illegitimate demands for loyalty when those employers consistently discriminate and retaliate against their employees and obstruct any efforts to comply with Title VII.”

This case is an unusual one but points out one of the issues today for HR: their seemingly disconnect from employee perceptions.  If employers cannot trust their HR team and employees cannot as well, the purpose of HR has to eventually change to a neutral standing. This could lead to great employer/employee antagonism and for lawyers to be the lead when it comes to employee relations.

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