6th Circuit Court of Appeals Finds that Offensive Conduct May Be Insufficient to Prove Hostile Environment

In the case of Michelle Bruce v. Meharry Medical College a female physician (Dr. Bruce) filed a lawsuit against her employer (the Medical College) alleging sex discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation for reporting same.

Dr. Bruce claimed that the college’s head of facilities, Dr. Ray, was dismissive of her and made belittling comments and noises of exasperation when she spoke at meetings. He also told employees that he wanted to have a one-on-one physical exam with Dr. Bruce, which she believed was a sexual comment. She reported this comment to the compliance hotline at the school and never received a response.

Two and a half months after she made this report, Dr. Bruce was asked by her supervisor to become a primary care provider at an off-site clinic run by the college. She refused the assignment, which was then offered to 3 of her colleagues – 2 male and 1 female.  One of the men agreed to take the assignment. Dr. Bruce maintained her position (was not forced to take the assignment).

About 4 months later Dr. Bruce resigned and filed suit, alleging that (1) Dr.Ray’s behavior and the request that she work at an off-site clinic constituted sex discrimination, (2) Ray’s comments and behavior created a hostile work environment, and (3) the request that she relocate to the off-site clinic was in retaliation for her report to the compliance hotline at the college.

The District Court found in favor of the college on all 3 claims. Bruce appealed to the 6th Circuit.

  • To prove discrimination on the basis of gender Bruce had to show that
    A) She suffered an adverse employment action AND
    B) That her male coworkers were treated differently.  Bruce argued that the assignment to an off site clinic  was an adverse employment action.  The Court disagreed because Bruce never worked at the clinic and suffered no retaliation for refusing the assignment. Also, the assignment was taken by a male employee.
  • To prevail on her hostile work environment claim Bruce had to prove that Dr. Ray’s comments were sufficiently severe or pervasive such that they affected Bruce’s performance.  The Court found that the comments were sporadic, not physically threatening and did not affect Bruce’s job performance.
  • Bruce’s claim that her supervisor requested that she relocate to the off-site clinic in retaliation for her report about Ray failed because:
    A) Bruce never told her supervisor about Ray’s comments,
    B) Bruce never told her supervisor about her hotline complaint,
    C) Bruce’s supervisor testified that he didn’t know about the comments or the hotline complaint.

TAKE AWAYS:

  1. The College should have responded to the hotline report – might well have saved expensive litigation.  Employer should take complaints of sexual harassment and hostile work environment seriously and investigate promptly.  Even though the comments were  found to be not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile or offensive work environment, Ray should have been instructed to alter his behavior.
  2. Employers should have a clear policy that prohibits unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment and instructs employees how to report these issues and to whom they should report. Employees will be responsible for following the policy.
Comments are closed.