The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently considered an issue that comes up fairly regularly in workplace retaliation litigation:  whether an individual can claim the law’s protection where the conduct he or she complains of was not in fact unlawful.

Importantly, the ruling by the appeals court in EEOC v. Rite Way Service, Inc., rejects the argument advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that a person who provides testimony or information as part of an internal EEO investigation (and then is allegedly fired because of it) does not have to have a “reasonable belief” that a violation of the law occurred.

In this case, the EEOC sued on behalf of a worker who was fired after submitting a written statement describing inappropriate conduct she witnessed involving a supervisor toward another employee.  In sending the case back for further proceedings, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the EEOC had to be able to show that the worker had a reasonable belief that the conduct she observed was unlawful before she could claim Title VII’s anti-retaliation protection.

A copy of the Fifth Circuit’s decision is available here.

Members of the Equal Employment Advisory Council (EEAC) can read more here.