Image of Does retaliation against an employee due to the employee's testimony in federal court violate civil rights laws?

Does retaliation against an employee due to the employee’s testimony in federal court violate civil rights laws?

Yes. In Haddle v. Garrison, 525 U.S. 121 (1998), the Supreme Court held that terminating an employee in furtherance of a conspiracy to retaliate against him for his appearance in federal court and to deter him and others from testifying in subsequent federal court proceedings states a claim under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. 1985(2) and (3).

Haddle was an at-will employee of an employer whose officers were charged with Medicare fraud. He alleged that those officers conspired to have him fired from his job in retaliation for his cooperation with a federal grand jury subpoena.  Haddle did not testify before the grand jury because of the “press of time,” but he was expected to appear as a witness in the criminal trial resulting from the indictment. When his employer fired him, he brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2) alleging a conspiracy to deter him from testifying in the upcoming criminal trial and conspiracy to retaliate against him for attending the grand jury proceeding.  The district court dismissed the complaint and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that a conspiracy to terminate an employee’s at-will employment constitutes injury to person or property and is therefore actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2).

The Court reasoned that because “[t]he gist of the wrong at which § 1985(2) is directed is not deprivation of property, but intimidation or retaliation against witnesses in federal-court proceedings,” the loss of at-will employment can injure a plaintiff for purposes of the statute even though he or she lacks a property interest for purposes of the Due Process Clause. Id. at 125–26, 119 S. Ct. 489. 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2) prohibits conspiracies to intimidate or retaliate against parties, witnesses, or jurors testifying or participating in federal court proceedings.

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2), a victim of intimidation or retaliation who suffers injury to “his[/her] person or property” can recover damages against the perpetrators of the conspiracy.  Congress’s purpose in enacting § 1985(2) was “to protect citizens in the exercise of their statutory and constitutional rights to enforce laws enacted for their benefit.” Chahal v. Paine Webber, Inc., 725 F.2d 20, 24 (2d Cir. 1984).

What is the burden of proof to prevail in a Haddle claim?

To prevail in a Haddle claim, a plaintiff must prove: “(1) a conspiracy, (2) to deter testimony by force or intimidation, and (3) injury to the plaintiff.” Brever v. Rockwell Int’l Corp., 40 F.3d 1119, 1126 (10th Cir.1994).  A conspiracy requires proof by direct or circumstantial evidence of an agreement between two or more people “acting in concert.”  Id. (citing Abercrombie v. City of Catoosa, 896 F.2d 1228, 1230 (10th Cir. 1990).

A plaintiff can satisfy the deterrence element where defendants use force or intimidation even where they are unsuccessful “despite their best efforts” to deter testimony. Id. at 1129.  Loss of employment by wrongful termination or a plaintiff’s resigning due to harassment and a hostile work environment constitutes injury under the statute.  See Haddle, 525 U.S. at 126; Id. at 1124.

What damages can be recovered in a Haddle action?

Under a § 1985(2) Haddle action, a plaintiff may recover damages for injury caused by the conspiracy to deter her from testifying.  A successful plaintiff may recover for injury incurred from wrongful termination as she would under tort law, and this includes economic harm caused by the termination as well as compensatory and punitive damages. See, e.g., Haddle, 525 U.S. at 125-26 (finding defendants’ interference was third-party interference with Haddle’s at-will employment, holding this injury “has long been a compensable injury under tort law,” and analogizing this injury to intentional interference with contractual relations); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 766 (1979), Intentional Interference with Performance of a Contract by a Third Person (explaining “[o]ne who intentionally and improperly interferes with the performance of a contract . . . between another and a third person by inducing or otherwise causing the third person not to perform the contract, is subject to liability to the other for the pecuniary loss resulting” from that interference). A party injured under Haddle may recover against any or all of the conspirators for injury suffered because of the conspiracy. See 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3).

Jason Zuckerman, Principal of Zuckerman Law, litigates whistleblower retaliation, qui tam, wrongful discharge, and other employment-related claims. He is rated 10 out of 10 by Avvo, was recognized by Washingtonian magazine as a “Top Whistleblower Lawyer” in 2015 and selected by his peers to be included in The Best Lawyers in America® and in SuperLawyers.

Katherine Krems represents employees in discrimination, sexual harassment, and whistleblower retaliation cases. She is focused on finding creative solutions and maximizing her clients’ recoveries. Prior to law school, she worked on policy reforms in Congress to strengthen the rights of workers, women, and marginalized groups.