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Eleventh Circuit Recognizes Hostile Work Environment Claim

Author:  Dana Chang, Associate at Florida Law Alliance Member firm Clarke Silverglate, P.A.  You may reach Dana directly at DChang@cspalaw.com or via phone at 305.347.1547.

The Eleventh Circuit recently joined its sister circuits in recognizing a claim for retaliatory hostile work environment under Title VII in Gowski v. Peake, 2012 WL 1986446 (11th Cir. 2012). The court reasoned that the claim is consistent with Title VII’s remedial goals, the statutory text, congressional intent and the EEOC’s own interpretation of the statute.

In Gowski, two physicians, Drs. Gowski and Zachariah, sued their employer, Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), claiming that after filing charges of discrimination, they were subjected to a hostile work environment wherein their supervisors acted in concert to retaliate against them. At trial, they presented evidence that their supervisors spread rumors about them, instructed other employees to encourage them to resign, removed them from committees and disciplined them.

The jury found that the doctors experienced a retaliatory hostile work environment and awarded Dr. Gowski $16,000 in lost wages and $250,000 in emotional damages and Dr. Zachariah $90,000 in lost wages and $1,000,000 in emotional damages. After trial, the VA requested a remittitur of the damages and moved for judgment as a matter of law. The court vacated the awards for lost wages and reduced Dr. Zachariah’s emotional damages to the statutory limit of $300,000. In the VA’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, it argued that retaliatory hostile work environment was not a cognizable claim in the Eleventh Circuit, and, even if it was, discrete acts of retaliation (such as termination, denial of transfer or refusal to hire) could not form the basis of the claim. The district court denied the motion. Both parties cross-appealed.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit recognized claims for retaliatory hostile work environment, and, although discrete acts alone cannot form the basis of a hostile work environment claim, they can be considered as part of the evidence establishing the claim. Applying the familiar standard applicable to hostile work environment claims, the court found that the behavior complained of by the doctors was sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of the doctors’ employment. The court further held that the supervisors’ retaliatory intent was supported by the evidence.

Bottom line:  Retaliation claims frequently are more difficult to defend than the underlying discrimination claims. Managers should be trained and periodically refreshed in anti-retaliation laws. Employees who engage in protected activity, including suing the company, cannot be retaliated against in any way.

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