North Carolina Employers are Prohibited from Retaliating Against Workers who Engage in Protected Activity
The North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, commonly referred to as REDA, prohibits retaliation against workers exercising rights under a variety of laws. Originally passed in an early-90's wave of reform litigation spurred by the disastrous Imperial Food Products fire, the law bans discrimination against people who have exercised or threatened to exercise their rights under the state's Workers' Compensation Act, the Wage and Hour Act, OSHA, and the Mine Safety and Health Act. REDA also protects victims of domestic violence and certain other individuals from discriminatory retaliation.
The Imperial Food Products fire, on September 3, 1991 resulted in 25 workers killed and 55 injured, in large part because fire doors were locked to prevent theft. Survivors later claimed that they were nervous about the locked doors but did not complain because they feared retaliation. REDA was enacted to alleviate those fears, and hopefully help prevent another similar tragedy.
On paper, REDA is a powerful tool for justice, because it provides a prevailing complainant with reimbursement of attorney fees, as well as the potential for treble damages for willful violations. However, some bureaucratic roadblocks exist, including a 180-day claim period and mandatory exhaustion of administrative remedies prior to suit.
To prevail on a REDA claim, a worker has the burden to prove
1) That they exercised rights specifically protected under REDA;
2) they suffered adverse employment action; and
3) the adverse employment action was taken because of the exercise of the REDA-protected rights. To prove the adverse action was because of the exercised right, an aggrieved worker must establish that the protected conduct was a "substantial factor" in the decision.
The North Carolina Employment Discrimination Bureau is charged with investigating REDA retaliation claims, and must issue a "right to sue" letter prior to the worker filing suit. After the right to sue letter is issued, an aggrieved worker must file a REDA lawsuit within 90 days. In rare circumstances, the EDB itself might file a lawsuit to enforce a violation; more often the EDB will apply some pressure on the employer to settle a dispute where it finds a likelihood of retaliation. Available remedies include injunctive relief (a court order prohibiting future retaliation), reinstatement to the job (which may include back pay and benefits as well as seniority rights as if the worker had never been fired), and compensation for lost wages and other economic losses. If a jury finds the employer's discrimination to be "willful" the employer might be ordered to pay triple damages.
REDA can be a powerful deterrent for employers who might be tempted to punish workers for exercising their rights. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to prove that certain adverse employment actions are retaliatory; rarely will an employer admit to a violation, and proof can be evasive.
If you would like to speak to a lawyer about a possible unlawful retaliation claim, schedule an appointment by calling (919)828-1456 x5, or fill out the contact form here on our website.