Unlawful Retaliation in the Workplace

What is considered unlawful retaliation or wrongful retaliation in the workplace?

Have you made a complaint about discriminatory treatment in your workplace? Has your employer taken action against you as a result of your complaint? You may have a claim for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Ohio Civil Rights Act, Ohio Revised Code 4112. Our Employment Attorneys in Columbus, Ohio have successfully represented numerous employees in retaliation claims throughout Ohio and can evaluate your case today. Reach out to us to schedule a free consultation.

What do I Need to Prove to to have a Claim for Retaliation Under the Anti-Discrimination Laws?

While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Ohio labor law protects employees from unlawful retaliation, not all unfair treatment by your employer is considered unlawful retaliation under the law. In order to successfully prove a claim for retaliation under Title VII, you will need to prove each of the following elements:

  1. You engaged in a protected activity;
  2. You suffered an adverse employment action; and
  3. There is a causal connection between your protected activity and the adverse employment action.

The specific requirements for each of these elements are explained below.

What is a “Protected Activity”?

In order to assert a claim for unlawful retaliation, you must engage in a “protected activity.” Protected activities include complaining of discriminatory treatment (the “opposition” clause) or filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or Ohio Civil Rights Commission, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing regarding unlawful discriminatory treatment at your workplace.

However, not all unfair treatment is considered discriminatory federal and state employment laws. In order to prove you were subjected to unlawful discriminatory treatment , you must prove the unfair treatment you or someone else was subjected to or suffered happened because of your or their membership in a “protected class.” These protected classes include: race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age (if you’re 40 or older), gender, and/or disability. Unfortunately, unfair treatment based on something else that is not included in this list of “protected classes” may not give rise to a legal claim for unlawful retaliation.

If you are still employed by the employer who has retaliated against you, then you should take the following steps to strengthen your potential retaliation claim:

    1. Complain in writing to your supervisor and/or your HR department. It is always helpful to have a written record of the complaint(s) you’ve made.  Make sure you check your employee handbook or company policies to follow the procedures your company requires for making this type of complaint.
    2. Make sure your complaint mentions on one of the protected classes listed above:

Example: “My supervisor, S, treats me differently than other employees by doing X, Y, and Z. This isn’t fair.”

    • This example does NOT mention that you believe your membership in a protected class is the reason for the unfair treatment.

Example: “My supervisor, S, treats me differently than other employees by doing X, Y, and Z. I believe S treats me differently because of my race.”

    • This example does mention your membership in a protected class (see italicized language)

For more general information on the steps you should take if you’re thinking about filing an employment lawsuit, check out our blog post: 6 Critical Steps to Take Before Filing an Employment Lawsuit – From an Employment Attorney.

What is an “Adverse Employment Action”?

You must also be able to prove your employer took an “adverse employment action” against you as a result of your protected activity. Courts have found that the following acts constitute adverse employment actions: terminating your employment, constructively terminating your employment by subjecting you to a hostile work environment, demoting you, failing to promote you, reducing your pay or benefits, significantly diminishing or increasing your job responsibilities, placing you on unpaid leave, and in some situations, transferring you to a less prestigious or otherwise less favorable job. While other actions not included in this list might cause inconvenience or embarrassment, you must generally prove your employer took one of the listed actions against you to assert a successful retaliation claim.

How Can I Establish a “Causal Connection” Between my Protected Activity and the Adverse Employment Action I Suffered?

Finally, you must prove there is a “causal connection” between your protected activity and the adverse employment action you suffered. This element is typically established based on the timeline of events in your case. For example, if you make a complaint of discrimination and you are fired a week later, this quick turnaround time will help to establish a causal connection between your complaint and your termination. A causal connection is also proven through evidence of further retaliatory conduct by your employer after you engage in a protected activity.

While retaliation claims typically fall under the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII, retaliation claims are also available under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (Wage Laws), requesting accommodations for medical reasons, among others. Your job should not be jeopardized because you have asserted your right to complain of discriminatory treatment or assisted or participated in a workplace investigation. For more information about establishing a retaliation claim in your specific situation, reach out to your Columbus, Ohio Employment Lawyer today to schedule a free consultation.

For information on other issues, see the Ohio Labor Laws page. To view the Ohio Revised Code, Click Here.

Related Practice Areas:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)


Hostile Work Environment