- A worker who complained of sexual harassment after being fired will not have his case revived. The employee was fired for legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons — he argued with a co-worker and refused to follow a supervisor's instructions, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Munoz v. World Flavors, Inc. et al., No. 19-2997 (3rd Cir. April 10, 2020)).
- As an employee of a temporary employment agency, On Site Personnel, David Munoz worked at World Flavors for 12 days before both companies fired him. Munoz and two others argued over workspace; they were all fired mid-morning on Nov. 20. Later that same afternoon, Munoz complained about a supervisor who sexually harassed him. Believing he was fired in retaliation of his complaint, Munoz sued, alleging sex discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state law. The district court awarded summary judgment to the defendants.
- The 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court, noting that Munoz was fired before he reported the sexual harassment and that while the incidents he said he suffered at the hands of the supervisor were "highly offensive," a reasonable juror could not find that pretext was established.
Although the adverse employment action in this instance occurred before the employee complained about alleged sexual harassment, terminations and demotions that come on the heels of an employee's protected activity can create risk. Timing itself can support an inference of retaliation in the beginning stages of a lawsuit.
Courts have made rulings similar to that of the 3rd Circuit. The 9th Circuit ruled earlier this month that a supervisor's actions fell short of the extreme behavior required for a hostile work environment claim. The plaintiff said her supervisor made two derogatory statements about her epilepsy over three years, told co-workers that she was a "problem child" and "troublemaker," assigned her longer shifts and less desirable tasks and subjected her to excessive scrutiny. Last year, the 4th Circuit ruled that a handful of incidents in the span of several years wasn't enough to prove an employee's claims of disparate treatment, hostile work environment, constructive discharge and retaliation.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said in guidance that the work environment must be "intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people" in order to be considered unlawful and that petty slights, annoyances and isolated work incidents, unless extremely serious, generally aren't enough to make a case for unlawful behavior. Employers should be aware that even if workplace actions aren't severe or pervasive enough to create legal liability, bullying can create a stressful, toxic workplace.