The Hostile Work Environment – How Hostile Is Hostile?

ImageMany were shocked when Jonathan Martin walked away from the Miami Dolphins citing a hostile work environment as his primary motivation. It has yet to be reported fully how much impact moving him around the field had to do with his discomfort, nor his mental health – which is the current story about most recent whereabouts.  All this brings to mind a case we covered in our Florida Employment Law Letter last year about hostile work environments; juries can levy substantial damages that appeals courts rarely overrule.

Claims of Retaliatory Hostile Work Environment Now Recognized by Florida federal courts!

 By Sean Douthard with Harper Gerlach PL

 The federal appeals court over Florida will now officially recognize claims of a retaliatory hostile work environment as a cause of action against employers. 

 Employers beware…

 In a case of first impression for the federal court of appeals over Florida (the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals), the court recently confirmed a new avenue for employees to bring legal actions against their employers.  The case involved two doctors, (Dr. Diane Gowski and Dr. Sally Zachariah) who brought suit against their former employer, the Department of Veterans Affairs (or VA).  The doctors brought several charges against the VA, including a somewhat controversial claim of a retaliatory hostile work environment.  This claim was of particular interest because the 11th Circuit Court had never actually recognized a claim for retaliatory hostile work environment prior to this case. The doctors received a jury verdict of over $1 million in back wages and emotional damages, and the VA challenged the ruling on appeal.   The appellate court ultimately concluded that workers can assert a retaliatory hostile work environment as a viable claim for damages.

 How hostile is hostile?

The jury in the doctors’ case against the VA sided with the docs on their respective claims.  So how did the doctors win their case? More importantly, what type of conduct can amount to a hostile retaliatory work environment?

The doctors’ claims of retaliation each stemmed from what they felt was revengeful treatment on the part of the VA following EEO complaints that had previously been filed by the doctors.  The doctors alleged that the VA “made a concerted effort to retaliate against employees who filed EEO claims against them, or opposed their discriminatory or retaliatory actions.”  The docs claimed that the VA administration engaged in retaliatory conduct such as, changing of one of the doctor’s duty assignments, soliciting complaints against the doctors, denying privileges, lowering proficiency reports, removing one of the doctors from her rotation as a section chief, suspension and the recommendation for termination, accusing one of the doctors of being in an altercation with another doctor, issuing a reprimand for negligence, and various other actions and accusations.

Both doctors testified to the hostile nature of their work environment at trial.  Dr. Gowski testified that the hospital was a hostile work environment full of fear and retaliation.  Dr. Gowski claimed that her supervisors were attempted to assassinate her character.  She felt that her supervisors solicited complaints from other employees, questioned her ethics, and harmed her reputation within the hospital.

Dr. Zachariah stated that the environment was so retaliatory that she would sometimes break down and cry.  Prior to filing her EEO complaint Dr. Zachariah was the Chief of Neurology for the hospital.  After Dr. Zachariah filed her complaint the hospital’s Chief of Staff realigned the Neurology Department as a section under medicine services.  The realignment of the Neurology Department meant that the Chief of Neurology position, formerly held by Dr. Zachariah, would now rotate among doctors.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, Dr. Zachariah was also removed from the rotation.  When she was removed from this position she took a salary hit of $20,000!  The supervisor responsible for the realignment of the department also happened to be the chair of the committee responsible for determining salary.  When Dr. Zachariah asked her supervisor about the department move he explained to her that it was simply due to backlog, when in reality the decision was purely retaliatory.

Evidence at trial suggested that two of the doctors’ supervisors did not look highly upon employees who filed EEO complaints.  One of the supervisors even went as far as warning staff members that lawyers would not run the hospital.  It was established at trial that the VA supervisors engaged in a retaliatory scheme to remove any employees that filed an EEO complaint.  The doctors’ legal team was able to prove that the VA supervisors “targeted employees” who filed complaints, spread rumors against the doctors, attempted to ruin the doctors’ reputations and careers, and collected reports against those who filed complaints in an effort to terminate them.  Other doctors and staff members were aware of this scheme and left in fear of being targeted themselves.  Several of these employees testified at trial that if they did not side with the supervisors’ position then they thought they would be targeted as well.

The attorney for the VA attempted to argue that there never really was any retaliation, that the doctors’ were simply second-guessing management’s decisions and wanted to run the hospital.  The jury did not agree.  The jury found that both doctors experienced a hostile work environment.  In return for their suffering, one doctor was awarded $250,000 in emotional damages and $16,000 in lost wages, and the other doctor was awarded a cool $1,000,000 in emotional damages with an additional $90,000 for lost wages.  The court later vacated the awards for lost wages based on the fact that employees are only entitled to lost wages if they are constructively discharged and the doctors did not prove constructive discharge.   However, the VA was still on the hook for the emotional damages as well as the doctors’ attorneys’ fees.  Gowski v. Peake, 09-16371, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 11245 (11th Cir. June 4, 2012)

 Going forward

 When the appeals court heard this case, they had to determine whether a claim for a retaliatory hostile work environment was actually a legitimate claim to be recognized by the Court.  This particular type of claim had never been brought up in the Florida’s Federal Court of Appeals.  The Court observed the fact that every other Federal circuit does recognize this type of claim and that allowing for this cause of action falls in line with the congressional intent behind the passing of Title VII.

Employers should always be aware of the potential causes of action that disgruntled employees may raise.  Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees and also ensures employee protection from hostile work environments.  A hostile work environment consists of a workplace filled with conditions of discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is severe or pervasive enough to alter the aspects of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.  It would be wise for any employer to be very cautious of the working environment of any employee that has filed some kind of formal or informal complaint.  Given that Florida now recognizes claims of retaliatory hostile work environment, any adverse treatment against an employee that has exercised his or her rights could be costly.

For more information on this and other Florida Employment Law cases, please call 904-296-7000 and ask to speak with either Tom Harper or Gregg Gerlach.

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