A Negative Job Reference Can Lead to a Claim
Philip B. Phillips
Providing negative job references to prospective
employers about one of your former employees could constitute unlawful
retaliation in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the
Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and similar anti-discrimination laws.
In Male v. Tops Markets, LLC [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com
subscribers], a federal court in New York ruled in favor of a former
employee, who claimed that the company provided negative job references to
potential employers in retaliation for her having filed an earlier lawsuit and
charge of discrimination. She claimed that in response to a question from a
prospective employer regarding what kind of employee she had been, and would
be, the former employer responded that she was a good employee the first couple
of years, but thereafter began having personal problems that spilled over into
her professional life, and missed and was late for work because of her personal
and medical issues.
The court ruled the former employee's allegations were
sufficient to support a claim of unlawful retaliation against her former
employer. It also stated the alleged comment regarding her "medical issues"
created a reasonable inference that the former employer was referring to her
absences which she allegedly took under the FMLA or because of her alleged
Other courts, including the United States Supreme Court,
have previously held that a negative reference also can support a claim of
retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC's
Compliance Manual notes that unlawful retaliation can occur even after the
employment relationship has ended:
Examples of post-termination retaliation include actions
that are designed to interfere with the individual's prospects for employment,
such as giving an unjustified negative job reference, refusing to provide a job
reference, and informing an individual's prospective employer about an
individual's protected activity. . . . Retaliatory acts designed to interfere
with an individual's prospective for employment are unlawful regardless of
whether they cause a prospective employer to refrain from hiring the individual
. . . However, the fact that the reference did not affect the individual's job
prospects may affect the relief that is due. (EEOC's Compliance Manual, pg. 13)
It is unlawful for
employers to give a negative job reference, or refuse to give a reference,
because a person has complained of unlawful discrimination or otherwise engaged
in protected activity under federal or state civil rights laws. Many employers
have adopted a neutral reference policy and provide only a former employee's
position, dates of employment, and salary information. It is important,
however, that such policies are not only adopted, but applied consistently and
communicated to all management personnel likely to receive reference requests.
Employers are also well-advised to not provide information regarding a former
employee's protected activity (lawsuit, EEOC charges, EEO complaint, workers'
compensation claims, and so forth) or medical issues to a prospective employer
in response to a reference request.
Labor and Employment Trivia
Last week, we add a new feature to our weekly Employment
Law Update, Labor and Employment Trivia. Each week following our regular
articles, there will be a trivia question with some historical perspective. It
is hoped that our readers will have some fun and learn a thing or two about the
field in which we work. The answer to each week's question will appear in the
following week's update. Readers are invited to send comments or suggested
trivia questions to Mark Neuberger email@example.com.
Last week's question:
What labor union leader garnered nearly one million votes for president of the
United States while he was jailed inside a federal prison?
Answer: Eugene Victor Debs
(November 5, 1855 - October 20, 1926) was a colorful character. He helped form
the American Railway Union and was a leader in the great Pullman Strike of
1894. The strike was crushed when the U.S. Army was called out presumably
because the strike was interfering with the delivery of the U.S. mail. Debs was
imprisoned for leading the strike and while in prison, became a full blown
Socialist. Debs was also involved in the formation of the Industrial
Workers of the World. Debs was again imprisoned under the Espionage Act of 1917
when he spoke publicly against the WWI draft. His conviction was upheld by the
U.S. Supreme Court in Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919) [enhanced version / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law].
Debs ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. In the 1920 presidential
election, while in federal prison, he received more than 900,000 votes.
This week's question:
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination against
persons who are age 40 or older. Why was 40 picked as opposed to 21, 65, or any
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