D.C. District Court Refuses to Issue Preliminary Injunction Against Alleged Retaliation in Sex Discrimination Class Action

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In the 1991 movie “Silence of the Lambs” and the book on which it was based, FBI trainee Clarice Starling is tasked with working with the now-infamous Hannibal Lector to find a serial killer. That movie won a Best Actress Oscar for Jodie Foster as well as Oscars for Anthony Hopkins and the movie’s scriptwriters and director.

But not every trainee paints the same exciting picture of life as a female FBI agent in training. In Bird v. Barr, Case No. 1:2019cv01581 (D.D.C., July 23, 2020), a group of women FBI trainees claimed that they and others were victims of sex discrimination in the FBI’s basic training program for new agents and intelligence analysts. After the action was filed, one plaintiff and one potential witness in Phoenix alleged that a supervisor had retaliated against them by, among other things, threatening termination, requiring additional documentation for a Family and Medical Leave Act leave, not giving them meaningful assignments or refusing requests to work alternative work schedules. The plaintiffs filed a motion for an order preliminarily enjoining the FBI “from engaging in any retaliation against any plaintiff or witness in this action.”

The District Court found not only that the motion was improper, but was highly critical of it on multiple levels. The court noted at the outset that a motion for a preliminary injunction was the improper vehicle to seek relief, finding that it was “premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of how preliminary injunctions function in a civil action filed in federal court.” As the court stated, a motion for preliminary injunction must relate to the conduct complained of in the complaint, not other types of conduct. The motion in this instance was seeking ancillary relief to assist the plaintiffs in prosecuting their claims, not addressing claimed sex discrimination in training.

While the court found that it had no jurisdiction to consider the request, it was also obviously unimpressed with the merits. Both individuals claimed actions by what appeared to be a single supervisor in a single location – Phoenix – not classwide or systemic retaliation. In one case, the individual was unable to work because she had lost her security clearance, a matter the court found to be well beyond its purview. The court also noted, in accordance with the holdings of many other courts, that even loss of employment did not constitute irreparable harm, as money damages and post-judgment orders could make the claimed victim whole.

While the court’s analysis was generally dismissive of the relief the plaintiffs sought, they may have hurt their own chances by overreaching in two directions. First, they sought a nationwide preliminary injunction even though there were but two individuals involved, both of whom were from the same office. Second, with respect to those individuals, they sought highly specific orders stating the hours they could be required to work, permitting them to work at home, providing them with a laptop and similar details that would have caused the court to have to micromanage the workplace.

In any case, the court denied the motion for preliminary injunction, as it had neither the power nor the inclination to grant the requested relief.

The bottom line: A preliminary injunction is generally not the vehicle to address claims of retaliatory conduct in an employment class action.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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