A Supervisor’s ‘Boorish, Callous, Condescending, or Overbearing’ Behavior Doesn’t Necessarily Make a Work Environment Hostile, Says Sixth Circuit

The boundary lines separating what is not actionable versus what is impermissible employment discrimination have continued to shift and evolve. Regarding a strongly pro-employee ruling a California court entered in 2016 interpreting that state’s employment discrimination statute, one author wrote that the new opinion was a warning to employers:  don’t be a jerk. (The author used a word similar to jerk, but a little stronger.) In Tennessee, however, it is important to understand that the law is different here, and the mere fact, by itself, that a supervisory employee acts like a jerk or a bully or is generally extremely difficult may not necessarily be a winning case for the supervisor’s subordinate employee. An experienced Tennessee hostile work environment lawyer can help you, whether you’re an employer or employee, analyze your case and plot a smart path for you in these and other potential hostile work environment situations.

A recent decision handed down by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals highlights how this type of scenario can play out. The case centered on the conduct of a county prosecutor in rural southern Ohio. The prosecutor, allegedly motivated by a seminar he attended, decided he needed to take action to improve the level of professionalism within his office. Some of the measures he took were ones many workplaces utilize, such as the establishment of a dress code and the usage of a time-clock.

Other alleged behaviors and decisions were more…unique. Allegedly, the prosecutor entered a work area and loudly popped a large piece of bubble-wrap with the specific intention of startling and frightening the female employees. There was also the day the prosecutor allegedly appeared in the doorway of an office area holding an AR-15 rifle and called out, “Don’t worry. I’m not that mad.”

In January 2014, the prosecutor terminated Pamela, the office’s victims’ advocate/witness coordinator. Pamela subsequently sued the county commissioners, alleging that the prosecutor’s actions amounted to sex discrimination and a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII and Ohio law. According to the employee, the prosecutor enforced facially neutral rules like time-keeping and dress unevenly between men and women, and he also engaged in his more extreme conduct specifically to frighten and intimidate the female employees in the office.

The trial court entered a summary judgment for the employer. The employee appealed but lost again. The problem was that the behavior that the prosecutor allegedly displayed, even if all of it was 100% true, wasn’t enough to establish a hostile work environment under Title VII or Ohio law. The appeals court stated unequivocally that the prosecutor’s “actions… showed both immaturity and bad judgment.” However, Title VII simply does not protect employees “from all acts of a boorish, callous, condescending, or overbearing supervisor.” Proof of an objectively hostile or abusive work environment requires more, and the plaintiff didn’t have that in this case, the court decided.

Whether you’re an employee or an employer, it is important to understand exactly how far laws like Title VII go in protecting employees and whether a supervisory employee’s bullying, callous, or harsh behavior can amount to the creation of a hostile work environment. The diligent Tennessee hostile work environment attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have spent many years working on behalf of our clients, handling hostile work environment and a wide spectrum of employment discrimination matters . We are here and ready to help you.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

When is a Worker a ‘Co-Worker’ and When is He a ‘Supervisor’ in Terms of a Sexual Harassment Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, June 20, 2017

Sixth Circuit Upholds Ruling for Employer in Harassment Case Arising from Two Unwanted Sex-Related Texts, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 28, 2016

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