Everyone has either had one or heard the horror stories. Dealing with a supervisor or manager who yells, swears, and otherwise acts in a completely disrespectful manner towards employees can be traumatizing and have a substantial effect on morale, stress and anxiety levels, and even health. Given how severe the damage can be to the employee, does this mean the employee can sue and recover for this behavior?
At least in the Eighth Circuit, the answer is generally “no.” Most often, regardless of how rude and offensive the conduct of a supervisor or manager, as long as the conduct is not directed at an employee on the basis of a protected class status (race, gender, religion, etc.) or does not affect a material work condition or benefit, then it is permissible. A few examples from relevant cases will help explain the distinction.
In a fairly recent case, Rester v. Stephens Media, LLC, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a dismissal of both a hostile work environment claim and a sex discrimination claim based on conduct by an employee’s manager where the manager yelled and swore at the employee and even physically restrained her so she could not leave during the event. 739 F.3d 1127 (8th Cir. 2014). The following is the Court’s description of the events at issue:
Elderton slammed his hands on the desk and began screaming and cursing at her. Rester testified that she rolled her chair back, stood up, and said that she needed to leave, but Elderton put his hands on her three times, and physically prevented her from leaving until she began “wailing and cussing and screaming and hollering.”
Citing prior decisions, the Court noted that the standard for a hostile work environment claim was “demanding” and “required extreme conduct” as opposed to that which is “merely rude or unpleasant.” The Court found the manager’s conduct in the situation described above to be the latter. The Court further noted that there was nothing in the record to indicate that the offensive conduct was based on a protected class status of the plaintiff’s or that the plaintiff suffered a material, adverse consequence at work as a result of this conduct.
As dismaying as that may be to the average employee, the Rester case is consistent with other cases. For example, in Jackman v. Fifth Judicial Dist. Dept., the plaintiff employee brought Title VII claims for discrimination and also a claim for hostile work environment harassment. 728 F.3d 800 (8th Cir. 2013). The plaintiff was an African-American woman who endured the staff and supervisor: making complaints about the “black women” on her shift; making comments about how watching “Roots” qualified as studying African-American culture; joking about black people being prone to domestic violence; and excessive investigations into and monitoring of her activities at work to the point where her performance log was “eleven pages longer than the performance logs for eight other employees combined.”
Again affirming the lower court’s dismissal, the Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff had not suffered an adverse employment action on which she could maintain her Title VII claims. The Court defined an adverse employment action as one which “produces a material employment disadvantage” and not “minor changes in duties or working conditions, even unpalatable or unwelcome ones” and held that the plaintiff’s facts were not egregious enough to fit within the framework of claims allowed by prior decisions.
The Court applied the same logic to the plaintiff’s harassment claim, holding that the conduct at issue did not “affect a term, condition, or privilege of employment.” The Court further stated that, because these incidents happened only a few times a year, the work environment was not “severe or pervasive enough to constitute actionable discrimination.”
The main take home message from these and other cases is that, while it is unfortunate that employers may act like rude, offensive jerks, unless they do so in a way that: 1) has a negative, material effect on working conditions (such as termination, demotion, etc.) and 2) is explicitly based on a protected class status (such as race, age, gender, etc.), then an employee likely has no claim.
So yes, like many others, you may have a horrible boss. But until that boss crosses the line into one of the narrow, protected areas under law, the courts will not have a remedy for you. And what’s the bottom line for employers? If you are going to be a jerk, be a jerk to everyone, but just try not to overdo it.
If you would like to discuss an employment matter or other issue, contact Wilson Law Group to schedule a free consultation.