Tennessee case permitting pro se retaliations claims to go forward
Mr. Douglas Toalston, an employee of Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire, LLC (Firestone) and in the process of filing a worker's compensation claim, alleged Firestone discriminated against him by forcing him out of employment and denying him privileges granted to other employees. Mr. Toalston, representing himself (i.e., acting pro se), raised three federal issues: 1) employment discrimination under Title I of the ADA, 2) employment discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and 3) retaliation in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Specifically, he argued he was a qualified individual with a disability (in part, demonstrated by the nature of his workers' compensation claim), and experienced adverse employment actions because he proceeded with a workers' compensation claim for an injury on the job.
He argued that filing a workers compensation claim is a protected activity, Firestone was aware of Mr. Toalston's protected action, and there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.
Firestone made no arguments in defense to the claims asserted by Mr. Toalston. Firestone's only argument was that Mr. Toalston asserted no viable legal theory, and filed a motion to dismiss.
The court indicated that the filing of a worker's compensation claim is a protected activity within the Sixth Circuit (though there is disagreement among other Circuits), and Mr. Toalston could proceed with his ADA and Title VII claims. However, because an individual claiming retaliation under the FLSA must show the retaliation occurred after filing an FLSA claim, the current litigation is the original FLSA claim, and of the alleged retaliation took place before filing this claim, Mr. Toalston did not meet the requirements for retaliation under the FLSA.
The court concluded that Mr. Toalston met the minimum requirements necessary to assert a discrimination claim under the ADA and under Title VII, but not for a discrimination claim under the FLSA, and allowed the ADA and Tile VII claims to go forward.
Courts hold pro se plaintiffs to a less stringent pleading standard. The U.S. Supreme Court in Haines v. Kerner (1972) announced pro se plaintiffs only have to show the absolute minimum of evidence for a pleading. In the present case, the judge not only held the plaintiff to the minimum of evidence, but appears to have assisted the plaintiff in clarifying his legal claims.
In Thornton v. Denny’s Inc. (1993), the Sixth Circuit accepted the filing of a workers' compensation claim as a protected activity, to satisfy the first element necessary to prove retaliatory discharge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Other courts, such as the Fifth Circuit, have decided to accept only the protected activities specifically listed in Title VII (47 U.S.C.A. §2000 e-3), that is: opposing any practice made an unlawful employment practice by Title VII; making a charge; or testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII.