“Wailing and Cussing and Screaming and Hollering”—A “Singular Incident” or a Hostile Work Environment?

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected the sex discrimination, hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation claims that a graphic designer brought against her employer and two of her managers following a shouting match with her supervisor. According to the court, even though the supervisor physically prevented the employee from leaving the heated conversation, she could not show that his conduct created a hostile work environment. Rester v. Stephens Media, LLC, No.12-3934, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (January 13, 2014).

Loretta Rester worked as a graphics designer at an Arkansas newspaper. When a customer rejected her work on a publication, her manager criticized Rester for the errors that she had made. Their discussion became heated. At one point, the manager slammed his hands on the desk and began screaming and cursing at Rester. She stood up and started to leave the meeting, but her manager placed his hands on her three times and physically prevented her from leaving and would not release her until she began “wailing and cussing and screaming and hollering.” Rester left the building briefly, went to her vehicle and regained her composure, and returned to the office and met with her manager and the paper’s editor. The manager apologized to Rester, who finished the workday.

A little over a week later, Rester reported the incident to the paper’s publisher and to the manager’s supervisor. The paper’s human resources department investigated the matter, but did not impose any discipline on the manager. Rester told human resources that she loved her job and wanted to keep working. The company did not take any adverse employment action against her. However, a few weeks later, Rester emailed her two-weeks’ notice of resignation.

Rester later brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act alleging discrimination based on sex, a hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation. The district court granted the employer’s motion on the federal claims and dismissed Rester’s state law claims without prejudice. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Sex Discrimination Claim

Agreeing with the district court that Rester had failed to establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination, the appeals court concurred that she had suffered no adverse employment action. The Eighth Circuit also said that even if Rester had produced evidence of an adverse employment action, she had not shown that her manager’s actions were motivated by her sex. Thus, Rester had not received different treatment because of her sex.

The Hostile Work Environment Claim

Affirming the dismissal of Rester’s hostile work environment claim, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the manager’s conduct did not create a hostile work environment. “This singular incident, while most unfortunate, does not meet the standard required. The incident related to a workplace disagreement and the conduct does not denote a sexist connotation,” wrote Circuit Judge Myron Bright.

The Constructive Discharge and Retaliation Claims

The appeals court also affirmed the dismissal of Rester’s constructive discharge and retaliation claims. The court concluded,

The record reflects that the defendants sought to retain Rester as an employee. Noting in the record indicates that the defendants forced Rester to quit or that they should have known that she would leave her employment. Furthermore, because Rester’s claim of a hostile work environment fails, her claim of constructive discharge must also fail.

Key Takeaways

This case serves as a reminder to employers that not every form of bad behavior rises to the level of a violation of the law. Likewise, a single incident may not establish a violation of the law. Nevertheless, the time and expense of a lawsuit over a manager’s anger-fueled outburst, in a case that went to a court of appeals, is a costly lessen and one that should serve as a “teachable moment” for supervisors and managers to keep their tempers in check when addressing employee performance issues.

Topics:  Adverse Employment Action, Hostile Environment, Human Resources Professionals, Sex Discrimination, Title VII

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Civil Rights Updates, Labor & Employment Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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