The Maryland federal district court just ruled on a claim by workers who were fired after making claims that they were not being paid appropriately. (Randolph v. ADT Security Services, Inc.) The employees filed claims with the State of Maryland, which requested backup documentation to support the charges that their employer, ADT Security Services, was not calculating their commissions correctly. The documentation included detailed information about the company’s customers and their security system installations.
Upon learning of the claims filed with the State, the company suspended and then fired the workers, stating that they had violated the terms of the company’s confidentiality policy by disseminating the information outside of the company. They sued for retaliation, and wrongful termination.
The District Court made an important distinction between employees who participate in their own claims of illegal activity, and those who oppose illegal activity, by helping others in their claims. The first group has a higher level of protection from interference. The opinion states: “While protected activity under the opposition clause must be ‘reasonable,’ the Fourth Circuit has specifically refused to apply any reasonableness requirement in the participation clause context.”
Often this distinction comes up in the context of complaints that might be only marginally related to an allegation of race discrimination, for example. There is a fear that any fired employee could recharacterize statements or conduct as protected activity. So if an employee raises an issue about conduct that does not involve him personally, the complaint must be reasonably related to a violation of the law, and the conduct is viewed under a reasonableness standard. Therefore, releasing confidential documents may be unreasonable under the circumstances when the employee releasing the documents is not making a personal complaint.
When the employee is making a complaint about her own situation, however, “reasonableness has no place” in the analysis.
The Court pointed out that permitting employees to be retaliated against for using “confidential” documentation would harm employees with the best cases. Those employees with convincing documentation, if not allowed to use it, would be hamstrung solely by a policy that prevents them from taking documents that are used to establish their pay. The Court pointed out that this could not only lead to abusive policies, but also intrusive investigations by agencies that enforce the discrimination and wage payment laws.