The Fourth Circuit, which is the federal court of appeals covering several states including North Carolina, in September, issued an unpublished opinion in the case of Driskell v Summit Contracting Group, Inc., involving the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (“REDA”). REDA prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee who exercises his or her rights to threaten to file or file complaints or engage in other protected activities under certain North Carolina Acts, such as the Workers’ Compensation Act, Wage, and Hour Act, and OSHA.
In this case, Mr. Driskell alleged that his supervisor brandished a gun and showed up to work intoxicated several times. Mr. Driskell further alleged that his supervisor physically assaulted him, resulting in injuries and that his employer, Summit Contracting Group, Inc. (“Summit Contracting”) terminated him after he complained about his supervisor to management. Mr. Driskell filed a lawsuit against Summit Contracting in a North Carolina federal court. In his lawsuit, Mr. Driskell’s primary claim was that he had been retaliated against and wrongfully terminated in violation of REDA. Mr. Driskell specifically alleged that Summit Contracting took the action against him because he made a safety complaint and that it was concerned that he would file a workers’ compensation claim arising out of the assault. Ultimately, the jury agreed with Mr. Driskell and returned a verdict in his favor, which included attorney’s fees and totaled more than one million dollars. Summit Contracting appealed the verdict to the Fourth Circuit, arguing that Mr. Driskell should be unable to recover under REDA because his complaint about his supervisor was internal to the company and not made to an outside agency. The Fourth Circuit disagreed with these arguments and held that an employee’s internal complaint related to safety at a construction site is covered by REDA. The Fourth Circuit further ruled that Mr. Driskell was entitled to recover both punitive damages and attorney’s fees, so the final judgment totaled $65,000 in compensatory damages, $250,000 in punitive damages (reduced from $681,000 because of the statutory cap), and $441,600 in attorney’s fees.
Even though it is an unpublished opinion and not binding on North Carolina state courts, it is significant because the Fourth Circuit made an expansive interpretation of the scope of REDA, which might be followed by other courts in the future. Employers should take heed of this opinion; understand that an internal safety complaint by an employee could be a protected activity under REDA; and be careful not to take any possible actions related to the employee that could be claimed to be retaliatory.