Cognis Corporation, a worldwide supplier of chemicals and nutritional ingredients, violated federal law when it retaliated against employees at the company’s Kankakee, Ill. plant, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed on August 18.
The EEOC alleged that Cognis terminated longtime employee Steven Whitlow after he refused to enter into a “last chance agreement.” That agreement allegedly waived Whitlow’s right to file a charge with any civil rights commission or other government agency. It also prospectively waived his right to pursue relief in any forum if Cognis decided to discharge him in the future, according to Chicago District Director John Rowe, who supervised the EEOC’s administrative investigation.
Although Whitlow had at first signed the agreement, he later rescinded it because, as he explained to Cognis, he did not wish to waive his civil rights. Whitlow was immediately fired, the investigation indicated.. According to Rowe, other employees were also asked to sign last chance agreements that purported to waive their rights as a condition for keeping their jobs.
Retaliation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a voluntary conciliation agreement out of court. The agency seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Whitlow in addition to an order barring future retaliation and other relief. The suit, captioned EEOC v. Cognis Corporation, C.D. Illinois No. 10-C-2182, was filed in federal district court in Urbana, Ill. and assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. McCuskey.
Rowe said, “We are always concerned when employers take measures which appear designed to prevent employees from making use of their rights under federal employment discrimination law. That problem is compounded when employees who resist these efforts face retaliation, including termination. That is sure to get our attention.”
EEOC Chicago Regional Attorney John Hendrickson added, “Some employers seem not to have gotten the message embedded in today’s suit filing: No one can stop employees from filing charges of discrimination with EEOC or take away rights to challenge future discrimination. Those who penalize employees for resisting such schemes are engaged in retaliation, pure and simple. The EEOC is vigilant about contesting any diminution of employees’ right to complain of discrimination.”
According to its website, Cognis Corporation, with headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, is owned by Cognis Group, which is headquartered in Monheim, Germany and employs over 5,000 people in approximately 30 countries, including seven U.S. states. Its operations in Illinois include the Cognis Corporation Kankakee Manufacturing Plant in Kankakee, Ill., and the Cognis Corporation LaGrange Nutrition & Health facility in LaGrange, Ill.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment. Further information about the Commission is available on its Web site at www.eeoc.gov.
The EEOC Chicago District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.