What Conduct Is (And Is Not) Grounds for a Federal Title VII Action in Georgia

Several recent cases decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals offer an important lesson to both employers and employees in Georgia when it comes to federal Title VII lawsuits. Namely, the lesson is that there is a wide range of bad behavior that an employer should not condone, even in isolated frequency, but that are still not viable bases for an employee’s Title VII lawsuit. Title VII, as the courts have repeatedly held, does not exist to impose a “general civility code” within the workplace. To be the foundation of a Title VII lawsuit, conduct must be more than isolated incidents, and be more than just rude conduct, but must be a pervasive pattern of harassment that directly ties to the employee’s inclusion in a protected class.

In a case decided earlier this year, a Florida doctor, Cheryl Clark, sued the hospital at which she worked. She accused the chair of her department of discriminating against her as a woman. The chair allegedly told Clark she should not apply for a directorship because was “too confrontational” and “intimidating,” which Clark understood to mean that her conduct was inappropriate for a woman.

The 11th Circuit sided with the employer. The court explained that Title VII’s purpose was not to litigate “ordinary tribulations” in the workplace, that personal animosity was not actionable, and that an employee could not use the law to resolve a “personal feud.” The evidence in Clark’s case pointed to hostility between her and the chair, along with others in the department. The evidence did not show that the hostility stemmed from Clark’s gender, though. Even if the comments were gender-motivated, the number of instances Clark cited in her case was too few. Employees must keep in mind that Title VII requires a pervasive pattern of severe harassment, and a small handful of hostile or boorish statements generally will not be enough to meet that requirement.

In another case, this one from this past June, a Georgia employee who represented himself in court lost his case because he could not meet this pervasiveness standard. Pierre Cazeau, a man of Haitian origin, sued his employer, Wells Fargo Bank, for Title VII violations. Cazeau, who worked as a lead teller at the Conyers, Ga. branch, accused his employer of racial discrimination. Most of the conduct that the teller listed in his complaint had no connection to his ethnicity. The alleged behavior included accusations of stealing, impugning his mental health, and “homosexual remarks.” The only race-related comments included some instances in which other employees questioned Cazeau’s immigration status and mocked him for speaking Creole to his wife and to Haitian customers.

This, the court ruled, simply was not enough to constitute a hostile work environment. Even though the conduct was undeniably improper, it was not a Title VII violation. Title VII is not a “general civility code.” Actionable conduct under Title VII must be severe and pervasive. The race-related comments Cazeau received were just too infrequent to meet that standard.

If you have questions or a possible case involving discrimination and Title VII issues, contact the experienced Georgia employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have the knowledge and skill you need to assist you with dealing with your Title VII issues.

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

More blog posts:

Christian Campus Ministry Allowed to Terminate Employee for Marital Problems, Sixth Circuit Says, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 12, 2015

Eleventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Georgia Employee’s Race and Age Discrimination Claims, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 11, 2015

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