A school employee complains of harassment by a co-worker. After an investigation, the alleged harasser is suspended for five days. When he returns, the two are never again assigned to the same classroom, and their interactions were limited to passing each other in the hallway and occasions when one employee phoned the library and the other answered.
Can the alleged victim of harassment still sue, under the theory that she has suffered an "adverse employment action" merely by the alleged harasser’s return to work?
No, according to a recent Connecticut District Court decision, Goodwine v. DCF (download here).
In dismissing the employee’s claims on summary judgment, the court said that the employer’s decision to have him return to work, instead of transferring him to another school is not enough to state a claim for harassment, particularly because there were "no further incidents" between the two.
While it may have bothered the employee, it was just not enough.
Taken in the light most favorable to [the employee, the] deposition testimony merely supports her claim that [the co-worker’s] return was subjectively bothersome to [her]. Because the decision to allow [the co-worker] to continue working at the … [s]chool did not objectively and materially change the conditions of her employment, it did not constitute an adverse employment action.
The Court also granted summary judgment to the employer on the hostile work environment claim finding, among other reasons, that the workplace was not an abusive working environment. "The other experiences that [she] complains of – not receiving responses to emails and having to share the hallways with an unsavory colleague – are the sort of "ordinary tribulations of the workplace" that the Title VII hostile work environment standards are meant to "filter out.""
Why is this important for employers? Because it demonstrates that in some harassment claims, employers can avoid liability if they take prompt remedial action. There is simply no path for the employee to follow, even if they were the victim of harassment.