A Supervisor “Pinning” an Employee to Her Desk Does Not Create a Hostile Work Environment Under Title VII

A federal court has decided that a female, African American employee did not have a hostile work environment claim against her employer, despite the fact that a white male supervisor pinned her to a desk.  The case is Conyers v. Virginia Housing Development Authority, Civil Action No. 3:12cv458-JRS (E.D. Va. Sep. 15, 2012).  The Court held that the employee may have employment discrimination and retaliation claims against her employer, but that her employment conditions were not “severe” enough to create a hostile work environment claim under Title VII.

The Plaintiff was an employee of the Virginia Housing and Development Authority (“VHDA”), a quasi-governmental agency.  During her employment, Plaintiff alleges that she was treated differently than her white, male coworkers and was retaliated against after complaining about her mistreatment.  Specifically, the employee claims, among other things that: (a) she was placed on probation, suspended, and ultimately discharged for performance issues, even though a white male coworker repeatedly suffered from poor performance but was never disciplined; (b) she was denied a professional development opportunity that was granted to all her male coworkers; (c) she was later given a poor performance review for not completing an objective that she would have completed at the same professional development opportunity; and (d) that after she complained to her superior about his false accusations and harassments, he put his leg against the back of her desk chair, pinned her to the desk,  and badgered her.

The Court decided that the Plaintiff could bring a claim against VHDA for employment discrimination because her race and/or sex could have been a motivating factor in VHDA’s decision to terminate her (even if it was not the sole factor).  The Plaintiff’s retaliation claim was similarly allowed to proceed because there was a short period of time between when Plaintiff first complained about her mistreatment, and when Plaintiff suffered adverse employment actions.  For instance, when Plaintiff complained about mistreatment in May, she was prevented from participating in a professional development assignment in June; and when she complained again about being falsely harassed at the end of November, she was pinned to her desk immediately after and terminated in the beginning of December.

However, the Court held that Plaintiff could not establish a hostile work environment claim against VHDA.  Title VII allows employees to bring a cause of action for hostile work environment if an employee faces unwelcomed harassment because of her race or sex that is so severe or pervasive that it alters the conditions of her employment.  The Court notes that although the Plaintiff could bring a discrimination claim against VHDA, the standard for proving hostile work environment claims is much higher.  The Court found that her supervisor’s acts of physically pinning her to the desk, yelling at her, badgering her, and treating her disrespectfully, were merely rude or callous behaviors, but were not the type of behaviors that would rise to the level of “severe or pervasive.”

While supervisors and managers cannot be held individually liable under Title VII, businesses can be (and often are) held liable for such individuals’ actions.  Employers are legally obligated to take steps to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace.  Once an employee complains, an employer’s next steps could determine whether the business will be shielded from liability or exposed to protracted litigation.  Thus, employers may wish to consult with experienced labor and employment counsel during such precarious times, to prevent a lawsuit before it happens.