Labor: Federal Appeals Court Says Employer Not Liable for Minor Workplace Slights

A recent decision from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit striking down an employee's retaliation claims as insufficient under federal law should provide some solace for employers. According to the appellate court's May ruling in Morales Morales-Vallellanes v. Potter, minor disruptions in the plaintiff's assigned workplace tasks and other trivial incidents could not sustain his Title VII retaliation claims.

The plaintiff in Morales filed several Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints against his employer, the United States Postal Service (USPS), and later sued USPS for, among other things, unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the plaintiff, USPS discriminated and retaliated against him by temporarily reassigning his back-office "distribution" duties to a female co-worker and giving him "window" duties to perform. The plaintiff further alleged that when he expressed interest in bidding for a particular position expected to include Saturdays and Sundays off, USPS reclassified the position with Thursdays and Sundays off instead. He also claimed USPS discriminated and retaliated against him by allowing certain female employees to take longer coffee-breaks.

Based on these claims, a jury in Puerto Rico returned a verdict in the plaintiff's favor. He was ultimately awarded $364,504. On appeal, however, the First Circuit vacated the jury verdict and returned the case to the lower court with instructions to enter judgment in the employer's favor.

As discussed in my previous column ("Employers Increasingly Vulnerable to Retaliation Claims"), Title VII prohibits conduct that "might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge or discrimination," as the court ruled in the 2006 case, Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White. According to the First Circuit, the plaintiff's claims did not meet this standard.

The plaintiff presented no evidence that window duties were "more difficult, less prestigious, or objectively inferior to... distribution duties," the court said. "[R]ather, the gravamen of [plaintiff's] complaint is that he preferred his regular assignment." "In appropriate circumstances, disadvantageous work assignments may qualify as materially adverse, but [plaintiff's] temporary reassignment is a far cry from those situations where we have found actionable retaliation," the court concluded.

Nor did the court find sufficient plaintiff's retaliation claim with respect to the job-posting, because there was no evidence this change affected plaintiff more than other employees bidding on the job.

The First Circuit also rejected plaintiff's gender discrimination claim, ruling even if USPS did enforce its coffee-break policy in a manner more favorable to its female employees, "such selective enforcement of the breaks policy had no material effect on plaintiff's employment and therefore cannot constitute discrimination within the meaning of the statute."

Last month's column addressed the surge in retaliation claims and cautioned employers to tread carefully when dealing with an employee who has invoked his or her rights under state or federal anti-discrimination law. Though the Morales case is no panacea, it serves as a valuable reminder that not every action an employer takes after an employee files a complaint constitutes actionable retaliatory conduct.

Vincent Cino

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