In Brooks v. Grundmann, a federal court of appeals in the District of Columbia held that a manager’s conduct amounted to no more than “ordinary tribulations of the workplace” and was thus insufficient to support a minority female employee’s federal race and sex hostile work environment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Plaintiff Patricia Brooks worked in the Office of Information Resources Management of the Merit Systems Protection Board (the organization tasked with addressing federal employees’ grievances). Brooks alleged that from 2005 to 2008, her male supervisor (An-Minh Hwang) created a hostile work environment by allegedly yelling at and insulting Brooks in front of her co-workers, and throwing a notebook in her direction when he was upset with her demonstration of a new project. In 2005, Hwang and his deputy gave Brooks a performance rating of "Fully Successful,” but were critical of her management skills. Over the next few years, Hwang’s deputy accused Brooks of falsely reporting time worked on her timesheet, Hwang and his deputy provided her various performance reviews with progressively lower overall ratings (the lowest being “Unacceptable”), they expressed annoyance when she lodged internal complaints about them, and Hwang selectively enforced the time and attendance policy to Brooks’ detriment. In 2008, Hwang placed Brooks on a performance improvement plan, which she met. Between 2005 and 2008, Brooks lodged a handful of internal complaints against Hwang and his deputy and filed a civil complaint.
Ultimately, the court dismissed Brooks’ claims. In order to prevail in her hostile work environment claims, she had to prove (among other factors) that the conduct that created the alleged hostile work environment was severe or pervasive. Based on Brooks’ allegations, and the fact that Hwang had some legitimate concerns about her performance and had counseled her accordingly, the court held that the conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to support her claims. It noted that isolated expressions of frustration and singular incidents (unless extremely serious) do not amount to a hostile work environment. Further, “petty insults, vindictive behavior, and angry recriminations” are similarly not actionable under Title VII.
Employers should note that isolated, inappropriate and boorish behavior by a supervisor, although it is ill-advised and should be subject to discipline, does not necessarily constitute a hostile work environment.