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Trujillo v. Henniges Automotive Sealing Systems North America, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 17793 (Aug. 20, 2012)

Issue: When does an employee’s informal statement to a human relations vice president make the employee’s subsequent termination unlawful retaliatory conduct?

Summary: Scott Trujillo was the director of global finance for Henniges Automotive Sealing Systems. After a July conference call with senior management of the Henniges plant in Guadalajara, Mexico, Larry Rollins, the vice president of operations, referred to the Mexican plant employees as “those f***ing wetbacks.” Trujillo confronted Rollins in a lighthearted way, and he appeared very embarrassed and apologetic. The following September, during a dinner with other Henniges’ executives, Trujillo suggested that the intimidating style of a Henniges employee was unnerving to the Latin American employees of the Mexican plant. Rollins interrupted Trujillo, saying, “F*** that cultural bulls**t” and characterized the Mexican plant employees as “f***in’ worthless.” Trujillo spoke to Henniges’ vice president of human relations, Geri Gasperut, who was present for Rollins’ statement, suggesting that such comments had been made more than once and were “inappropriate or derogatory things about other races.” Gasperut was present a week later when Trujillo was fired because he was not “a good fit.”
Outcome: The appellate court in reversing the lower court’s grant of summary judgment held that to establish a case of retaliation under Title VII, several factors are required: A terminated employee must show he engaged in protected activity; the employer knew of the exercise of the protected right; an adverse employment action was subsequently taken against the employee; and there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. The court noted that advocating for members of a protected class as opposed to oneself is protected activity for purposes of unlawful retaliation. The court, however, determined that Trujillo’s confrontation of Rollins regarding the first comment was not such a complaint because he did not communicate to Rollins that he was offended by the “wetback” comment. Therefore, it did not constitute an act of “opposition” to discrimination and would not be considered protected activity under the court’s previous decisions interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The court, however, did find that Trujillo’s second communication to Gasperut was “opposition” to the alleged racial character of Rollins’ comments because the comments themselves were unlawful employment practices to the extent that they created a hostile work environment.  
Legal significance: For purposes of unlawful retaliation, it is irrelevant whether the discriminatory statements are directed toward the race or national origin of the person complaining or are directed toward others. Conduct producing a hostile environment based on a protected class is an unlawful employment practice and those who complain about it are protected from an adverse employment action that can be traced to any such complaint.          
Visit the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit website to view the entire opinion.