Federal Legal Corner: Hostile Environment Claim Rejected

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently affirmed a District Court’s grant of summary judgment dismissing a discrimination case brought by a female African-American employee of the MSPB. Brooks v. MSPB, No. 12-5171 (D.C. Cir., 4/15/14). Brooks’s discrimination claim against the MSPB, which hears appeals from adverse employment actions at other agencies, including claims of discrimination, stemmed from several actions that she alleged created a hostile work environment.

In particular, Brooks asserted that her supervisor had yelled at her in front of co-workers and flung a heavy notebook toward what Brooks thought was her direction.In addition, Brooks complained that co-workers had also insulted and demeaned her and had engaged in angry confrontations with her. Brooks also alleged that the agency had diminished her duties, subsequently downgraded her performance appraisals, and unfairly placed her on a “performance improvement plan.”

The appellate court nonetheless found that these actions did not amount to conduct “so severe and pervasive as to alter the condition of Brooks’s employment” and therefore did not constitute an actionable “hostile work environment” discrimination claim. The court surveyed the law regarding claiming a hostile work environment, and acknowledged that in certain situations even a single incident might be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. However, the court concluded that the series of events Brooks alleged were not severe or pervasive. Even though Brooks’s supervisor admitted to “slamming down his hand” in frustration, and even though the court described Brooks’s colleagues and supervisor’s behavior toward her as “tactless and ill-mannered,” the court held that there was “nothing resembling [the] level of malevolence” present in earlier cases where courts sustained claims of a hostile work environment.

This decision shows that the legal standard for demonstrating a hostile work environment is difficult to satisfy, even when managers admit to episodes of yelling and throwing things toward their subordinates. You still need to prove that the misconduct was motivated by discriminatory animus.

* This information is provided by the attorneys at Passman & Kaplan, P.C., a law firm dedicated to the representation of federal employees worldwide. For more information on Passman & Kaplan, P.C., go to http://www.passmanandkaplan.com.

The attorneys at Passman & Kaplan, P.C, are the authors of The Federal Employees Legal Survival Guide, Second Edition, a comprehensive overview of federal employees’ legal rights. To order your copy, go to http://www.passmanandkaplan.com. This book originally sold for $49.95 plus s&h, but is now available for $29.95 plus s&h.