Over the last several months, I’ve been asked to do far more sexual harassment prevention trainings than typical and the issue of profanity in the workplace has popped up.

No doubt that much of this is due to the recent spate of cases of very public sexual harassment and assault cases (Thank You Matt

starrMy colleague Gary Starr returns today with a decision from the Second Circuit (which covers Connecticut) that may just surprise you. Then again, if you’ve been following this line of reasoning, perhaps not.

There are outer limits to insulting speech, but a recent decision seems to indicate that it is really really far out there.

Let’s try something a little new today: I’ll give you some facts and see if you can pick the result that a court or agency found. (Hat tip to Overlawyered for highlighting some of these issues.)  I’ll give you the lesson learned from these cases at the end.

Used Car Salesman Loses Temper

1.  Nick is hired in late August 2008 as a used car salesman (really).  On the first day on the job, Nick worked in a tent sale and inquired about the bathroom facilities.  The manager responded that it was in the store.  The next week, when he asked if he could use the bathroom during tent sales, the manager responded “you’re always on break buddy … you just wait for customers all day”.  He told Nick that he could leave if he did not like the employer’s policies.  During the next tent sale, he asked other salespeople about the compensation policy. He also raised the issue of bathroom breaks as well.

At another tent sale (apparently, tent sales are very popular), Nick asked his manager about the commissions for a vehicle and thought the employer was stealing money from him in calculating his commissions.  He then went to the state’s wage & hour agency to obtain more information about commission-based payments.

By October 2008, his manager met with Nick in private office saying that he had no intention of firing Nick but that he was “talking a lot of negative stuff” and asking too many questions.  The manager also said that if Nick did not trust the employer, he didn’t need to work there.  Nick then lost his temper calling the manager a “f–ing mother f–ing”, a “f—ing crook” and an “a–hole.”  Nick also told the manager he was “stupid” and stood up, pushed his chair aside and told the manager that if he was fired, the manager would regret it.

Nick is then fired and brings a claim against his employer.

Will Nick win his claim?

a) No, yelling at his boss is “obscene and denigrating” and thus grounds to fire the employee, even if he did engage in some “protected” activity.

b) No, while he made threats against his boss, they were empty words and he did not engage in “protected” actvity anyways because mere discussions regarding compensation are not covered.

c) Yes, because Nick’s outburst was not menacing, physically aggressive or belligerent and he engaged in “protected” activity.

d) Yes, because the right to use a bathroom is protected under state law and Nick was right to be upset that his use was restricted.


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