Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Context is crucial in hostile work environment cases

Hostile work environment cases require the plaintiff to show that the sexual or racial harassment was severe or pervasive. Enough harassment will get you a trial in these case if the employer did not promptly try to remedy the problem. The Second Circuit has been plaintiff-friendly in this area, but some cases are still chucked aside for lack of evidence.

The case is Solomon v. Southampton Union Free School District, a summary order decided on December 10. As the Court of Appeals notes, plaintiff "points to many examples of alleged discriminatory acts to support her hostile work environment claim." But context is crucial in these cases. Viewed in context, a seemingly offensive remark might not create a hostile work environment. That is the case here.

Plaintiff alleged that the principal, Frazier, hung a confederate flag in the school hallways. But there's more to this. The Court of Appeals (Sack, Chin and Lohier) says that "the confederate flag was actually part of Georgia's state flag, which Frazier had hung along with several other state flags." Another example of this is that Frazier told plaintiff to "serve coffee and cake" to her white teaching aides. In isolation, this evidence might also show that Frazier treated plaintiff like a servant, good evidence for a hostile work environment case. But, in her Rule 50-h hearing (conducted when plaintiffs file a Notice of Claim), plaintiff said that "Frazier thought there was a communication problem between Solomon and her teaching aides, and that another school official ... 'chimed in and said, 'you need to pat them on the back, and you should buy them coffee and cake and make nice with them.''" That's not racist behavior, then, but good personnel management.

What we learn is that context is crucial in cases like this. An off-hand comment may seem offensive, but in context, it was not. This is why not every case goes to trial. The courts are looking for the full story behind these cases, and that's why we take depositions. A good examiner can find a way to show that these comments amount to very little.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Solomon prevailed in pointing out abuse in the Southampton School District as the Appellate courts have recognized. As stated in their ruling, “While the record contains some evidence that Frazier was abusive to a number of individuals…”
Parents in this school district should be concerned about what their child is witnessing at school. Do you want your child to see a teacher on the floor crying in a fetal position after a meeting with their boss? Do you want your child to see an administrator treating individuals (teachers and staff) in an abusive and demeaning manner? Are we teaching our children that it is alright to abuse women and minorities? Do you want to lose some of your best teachers you have invested in, just because someone is abusing them? Maybe it is time to question your school board about why this happened in your school district and how do you prevent this type of abuse from happening around your child in the future? Do you want to send your child to a place where there are people suffering from some form of abuse? Solomon’s record contains eight witnesses. According to the appellate ruling, some or all of the witnesses, were victims of abuse, and they have named other victims of abuse who were afraid to come forward.
Solomon’s case included charges of: Hostile work environment, Retaliation, Gender discrimination, Race discrimination, and Disability discrimination.
Even though this case never went to trial, the record clearly indicates, as stated by the Appellate court, that abuses have occurred. For all we know, the abuse may still be occurring.