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Opposing Unlawful Practices Protected Against Former Employer

Marie Patterson worked as a human resources manager for Georgia Pacific. In June 2017, Patterson told a plant manager that she believed the company passed over two qualified black employees for open positions. She was concerned about discrimination claims, but the plant manager told her to leave his office. A few weeks later, the plant manager said he was having trouble getting a hold of Patterson. He asked Patterson to help him with an emergency management meeting regarding employees trying to start a union. She said she needed to attend a deposition. Patterson was deposed for a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought against her prior employer, where she had also worked as a  human resources manager. The plant manager later asked Patterson whether she had supported her prior employer in the deposition. Patterson told him she testified on behalf of the women, and he responded that it "made things clear to him." A week later, Georgia Pacific fired Patterson but did not provide a reason.

Patterson sued Georgia Pacific for retaliation because she had given a deposition in a Title VII discrimination case. She asserted that her testimony was a protected activity. The district court dismissed her claim because of a "manager exception" that the court said exempts HR managers from protection under Title VII's anti-retaliation provision. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It held that the manager exception has "no basis in the text of Title VII's opposition clause and actually contradicts the text of it." Title VII protects all employees who oppose discriminatory practices without any qualification. The appellate court held that "nothing in the anti-retaliation provision…permits an employer to retaliate against one of its employees for opposing an unlawful employment practice of a former employer." The statute protects "any unlawful employment practice." By its language, the statute precludes "an employer" from retaliation. It is not limited to the employer who committed the unlawful practice triggering the objection. The circuit court held a current employer could not retaliate against an employee for conduct involving only a prior employer. Patterson's deposition testimony against her former employer satisfied the statutory definition of what it meant to "oppose" an unlawful employment practice.