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Title VII does not create a general code of civility in the workplace

January 27, 2011

Title VII does not create a general code of civility in the workplace

January 27, 2011

The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal District Court’s grant of summary judgment against the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Eileen Ahern v. Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary, Department of Veteran’s Affairs (No. 09-1985) (1st Circuit, Dec. 10, 2010).  In so doing, the appeals court underscores the importance of investigating complaints of discrimination and provides some great language for employers responding to discrimination complaints.

The plaintiffs — several women who worked as radiology technologists at a VA hospital in Rhode Island — brought claims of gender-based discrimination, retaliation and constructive discharge.  The plaintiffs made numerous complaints about decisions of an administrative manager in charge of operations.  They argued that his management style created “stressful working conditions” and a hostile work environment.  When the manager decided to reconfigure work schedules in the department (from four ten-hour days to five eight-hour days), the plaintiffs complained of retaliation.  A formal complaint of harassment, sexual discrimination and hostile work environment was filed, alleging that the manager was a bully, that he harbored unreasonable and unrealistic expectations, and that he was setting the employees up to fail.

The Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA) investigated the complaint and issued findings.  The DVA concluded that the manager had not engaged in discriminatory practices but that his abrasive management style had contributed to a serious morale problem in the department.  Although the change in the work schedule was never implemented, internal strife continued.

Citing anxiety and stress induced by the manager’s tactics, each of the plaintiffs looked for new positions, and eventually left the hospital.  The plaintiffs later filed charges of gender-based discrimination, retaliation, harassment and constructive discharge with the EEOC.  After obtaining right-to-sue letters, they brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island.  The District Court dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ claims.  Essentially, the court determined that the plaintiffs failed to support their claims with competent evidence.  The plaintiffs appealed.

The appeals court agreed with the District Court on all issues, holding that summary judgment was appropriate.  The case is most significant as to the plaintiffs’ claim that the poor treatment they received at the hands of their manager forced them to leave the hospital.  Plaintiffs claimed that, by management’s behavior, they were “constructively discharged.”

The appeals court addressed this issue head-on in noting that, “Title VII does not create a general civility code for the workplace.”  The plaintiff’s burden in a summary judgment case is to show that, as a result of discrimination, “working conditions were so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in her shoes would have felt compelled to resign.”  The court recalled the DVA’s report in addressing this issue.  While the manager’s style had “left much to be desired,” and his actions had “created divisiveness and unrest,” the report made it clear that he had not engaged in discriminatory practices.  The court stated that while the manager’s conduct may “have engendered a nerve-wracking environment,” it was not a “nerve-wracking environment based on gender.”  Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the DVA report indicated only that the manager was inefficient and lacking in interpersonal skills.

The court noted that, “Toiling under a boss who is tough, insensitive, unfair, or unreasonable can be burdensome, but Title VII does not protect from the ‘ordinary slings and arrows that suffuse the workplace every day.”  The court noted that, “generally disagreeable behavior and discriminatory animus are two different things.”

This case reminds us that employers need to promptly respond to the complaints of their employees.  Here, the employer’s own documented investigation served as the foundation of the court’s ruling that discrimination had not occurred.  The case further emphasizes that the anti-discrimination laws, while designed to protect workers’ rights, are not intended to provide relief to employees for every work-related experience that is perceived as unjust, unfair or unpleasant.

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