Opinions and Legal Insights

Federal Court Finds That It Lacks Jurisdiction To Enjoin Employer From Retaliating Against Putative Class Members

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Jennifer A. Riley

Seyfarth Synopsis – Following a familiar fact pattern, after a named Plaintiff filed a putative class action in Bird, et al. v. Barr, No. 19-CV-1581 (D.D.C. July 23, 2020), she complained that the defendant employer retaliated against her for bringing suit by, among other things, threatening to terminate her employment and failing to provide her meaningful assignments.  Plaintiff, however, took the complaint a step further and moved the district court for an order enjoining Defendant from retaliating against any named Plaintiff, or any witnesses, for participating in the action.  The district court entered an order soundly rejecting the motion and holding that it lacked jurisdiction to enter injunctive relief unrelated to the claims pending in the lawsuit.  The ruling is a nice addition to the defense arsenals of employers facing workplace class actions.  As the district court explained, Plaintiffs may not file a claim alleging, for example, sex-based discrimination and then parlay that claim into a request for preliminary injunctive relief that prevents potential retaliatory acts by Defendant, where those acts do not relate to the alleged conduct that gave rise to Plaintiffs’ underlying claims. 

Factual Background

Plaintiffs, current and former female employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), filed a putative class action alleging that they suffered sex-based discrimination during their enrollment in the FBI Academy’s Basic Field Training Course.  Four months after filing suit, Plaintiffs filed a motion to enjoin the FBI from retaliating against them, or any other potential witnesses, due to their participation in the action.  Id. at 1.

In support of their motion, Plaintiffs claimed that supervisors in the FBI’s Phoenix, Arizona Division retaliated against Plaintiff Weasley by, among other things, threatening to terminate her, failing to give her meaningful assignments, and denying her requests for reasonable accommodations for her disability.  Id.

Plaintiffs asserted that they needed preliminary injunctive relief to protect them from irreparable harm to their jobs and their health and “to protect the judicial process from the chilling impact of Defendant’s retaliation bordering on constructive discharge against a named plaintiff, which would deter anyone else from coming forward to join this putative class action or from offering truthful testimony.”  Id. at 2.  The Court denied the motion holding that Plaintiffs fundamentally misapprehended the purpose and function of a preliminary injunction.

The Court’s Opinion

At the outset, the Court noted that Plaintiffs premised their motion on a “fundamental misunderstanding of how preliminary injunctions function in a civil action filed in federal court.”  Id. at*2.  The Court explained that a preliminary injunction is appropriate to grant intermediate relief “of the same character as that which may be granted finally.”  Id.  in other words, a proper motion for a preliminary injunction seeks to enjoin “the action that the complaint alleges is unlawful” prior to the completion of the litigation.  Id.

The Court explained that a preliminary injunction is “not a generic means by which a plaintiff can obtain auxiliary forms of relief that may be helpful to them while they litigate unrelated claims.”  Id. at 3.  To the contrary, a district court only possesses the power to afford preliminary injunctive relief that is related to the claims at issue in the litigation and, to get such extraordinary relief, plaintiffs must satisfy well-established criteria, including by showing a likelihood of success on the merits and that they will suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction.

Here, the Court found that the “disconnect” between the underlying claims and the alleged basis for preliminary relief “could not be more evident.”  Id.  In their complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that the FBI authorized, or engaged in, sex-discrimination while Plaintiffs attended the FBI training academy.  Id. at *3-4.  In the motion, however, Plaintiffs sought an injunction “to protect all of the name plaintiffs” from potential reprisals for participating in the legal action.  Id. at 4.

Thus, without a connection between the claim and requested injunction, the Court concluded that “there is simply no jurisdictional basis for the Court to grant preliminary relief.”  Id. at 2-3.  Even if such connection had existed, however, Plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence of the “well-worn” preliminary injunction factors.  In particular, Plaintiffs failed to provide any factual basis for concluding that every named Plaintiff actually was entitled to preliminary injunctive reliefId. at 5.

Instead, the Court noted that Plaintiffs appeared to request injunctive relief “by association” – i.e., based on the actions of a handful of supervisors in the Phoenix Division against Plaintiff Wesley and one witness.  The Court found no allegations in the complaint, or the motion for preliminary injunction, that the FBI engaged in a pattern or practice of retaliatory conduct on a nationwide scale.  It seems that Plaintiffs merely wanted to “send a message” that Plaintiffs and witnesses were protected in order to preserve future participants’ willingness to participate in the litigation.  Id.

Implications

The Court chastised Plaintiffs for attempting to use the preliminary injunction device to “send a message” in order to preserve future participants’ willingness to participate in the litigation and provided a roadmap for future litigants to address any actual widespread retaliation.  The Court explained that, if the Plaintiffs had allegations and evidence that Defendant engaged in a wide-spread practice of retaliating against them (or their potential witnesses) for filing or participating in the action, it could grant Plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint and make those legal claims part of the action and, if Plaintiffs then could demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of such retaliation claims and that they would face irreparable injury without an injunction, the Court would have “both subjectmatter jurisdiction and ample justification” to issue a preliminary injunction.  The ruling is a nice addition to the toolkits of employers facing workplace class actions.  The ruling clearly delineates the limits of when and how Plaintiffs can seek injunctive relief and provides an apt illustration of the shortcomings of an unsupported maneuver to extend isolated allegations into nationwide relief.