To succeed in a lawsuit against your employer for race discrimination or retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you need to show that the employer did something bad to you, or to use the legal term, that you suffered an "adverse employment action". What is an adverse employment action? Well, being fired would be the most obvious one, but it could also be a demotion or reduction in pay. But what if the only actions taken by the employer are poor performance reviews and written reprimands? Are those "adverse employment actions" enough to support a claim?
A recent U.S. Court of Appeals court in Georgia said no, and on Monday of this week the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the decision. (Joe A. Barnett v. Athens Regional Medical Center, Inc.). Barnett, an African American who worked for Athens Regional as a construction department supervisor, sued the medical center alleging age and race discrimination, as well as retaliation, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Barnett had alleged that while he was working at the medical center he was forced to endure "overt racism", which included racially charged verbal taunts. He complained, but received two written reprimands, a written warning, and a negative performance review. He eventually took a medical leave to which he was entitled under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which he used up and then took additional leave, which finally led to his termination. He then sued.
Both the lower court and the appeals court ruled in the employer's favor, finding that Barnett did not suffer an adverse employment action. Barnett had argued that his letters of reprimand and poor review should have counted as adverse employment actions because they could have prevented him from earning a merit-based raise. The court didn't buy it, concluding that the reprimands and negative performance reviews had no effect on Barnett's employment.
Indeed, Barnett admitted that his two written reprimands did not result in his termination, demotion, suspension, a reduction in pay, or a change in job duties. Barnett also admitted that neither of the written warnings he received would have prevented an employee from receiving a merit raise. Further, Barnett could only speculate that his employer might have considered these as grounds for future adverse employment action. Barnett argued that the written reprimands and the negative performance evaluation were steps in Defendant's progressive disciplinary policy which could have led to harsher disciplinary action. However, he could not establish that these actions actually led to any tangible effect on his employment.
The court also ruled that any stress that Barnett suffered as a result of the reprimands and negative performance review was not an adverse employment action.
The takeaway? You need to show that your employer took actions which had a material effect on your employment in order to succeed in a racial or age discrimination claim related to a hostile work environment. Reprimands, negative evaluations, or stress at work simply aren't enough. You need to have been terminated, demoted, suspended, had your salary decreased, or been forced to change your job duties.
If you feel you have been subject to racial, age or sexual discrimination at work, and are wondering if you have a case, feel free to call us at Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP so we can explore the facts with you.