11th Circuit Court of Appeals Holds that a Cause of Action Exists for Retaliatory Hostile Work Environment

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (one of 11 courts that are one step below the U.S. Supreme Court) has concluded that an employee can pursue a claim where the employee was retaliated against by being required to work in a hostile environment.  This ruling has the effect of creating a new cause of action here in the 11th Circuit.

In a decision handed down on June 4, 2012, the 11th Circuit considered a situation in which two female physicians complained that they were retaliated against after they filed discrimination complaints against the hospital where they worked.  The physicians alleged that, in response to their discrimination complaints, they were subjected to a variety of forms of retaliation, including the following actions that directly impacted their work environment:  they were assigned different duties; removed from professionally desirable committees and studies; denied hospital privileges (resulting in an inability to provide medical care in certain practice areas at the hospital); reprimanded; suspended;  given smaller bonuses than colleagues; given lower proficiency ratings in reviews; forced to suspend research;  denied access to grievance procedures; and had their complaints about other doctors ignored.

The court noted that the two complaining physicians further alleged that the hospital’s typical response to discrimination complaints was to target complaining personnel by spreading rumors, attempting to ruin the reputations of the complainers, and collecting reports against the complainers in an effort to find a basis to terminate them.  Employees who declined to participate in such behavior found that they were targeted as well – resulting in employees participating in the creation of a hostile environment for targeted co-workers in order to save their own jobs.  In sum, the work environment was one of fear and intimidation.

Retaliation against an employee who has complained about an unlawful employment practice is barred under Title VII.  The issue considered by the 11th Circuit in this case was whether the creation of a hostile work environment in response to the filing of a complaint under Title VII constituted retaliation in violation of Title VII.  The 11th Circuit concluded that creation of a hostile work environment does constitute retaliation under Title VII.  All of the other Circuit Courts had previously reached this conclusion, which makes this the law of the land in all Circuits of the United States.

The 11th Circuit has ruled that, to prevail on a claim of retaliatory hostile work environment, the employee must prove that the atmosphere at work was so severe or pervasive as to alter the terms and conditions of the employment.  Factors to consider are the frequency and severity of the actions, whether there is a physical threat, and whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee’s job performance.  This is a fact-based analysis that should be conducted with the guidance of experienced employment counsel.

The analysis set forth in this article is provided for general understanding only and should not be considered legal advice.  Counsel should always be consulted for advice regarding a specific situation. 

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