Court Finds Alleged Incidents Did Not “Materially” Change Her Working Conditions

A federal appellate court recently upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an African American postal employee who claimed that she was discriminated against based on her race and gender. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that her discrimination claims failed because there was no “adverse action.” The court also rejected the worker’s hostile environment claim because she did not show that her supervisor’s actions were sufficiently “severe or pervasive.” Brown v. Potter, No. 12-1895, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (March 5, 2013).

Factual Background

Alicia Brown worked as a customer service manager at the Wayne Post Office in Westland, Michigan from 2006 until 2010. Brown alleged that for a year and a half her supervisor, Kevin Brandon, singled her out for disparate treatment and unlawful discrimination.

Beginning in May 2007, Brandon openly criticized Brown’s work in a meeting attended by other senior post office managers. Later that month, he denied her request for training. In June 2007, Brandon began dictating which shift Brown would be required to work, contrary to the practice of other managers who were free to select their own shifts and hours.

In January 2008, Brandon denied Brown’s request to take mandatory rural mail count training, though he had approved the same training for Westland employees and other postal employees in the area. He also allegedly tried to make Brown work longer hours, called her a liar, and began requiring his secretary to maintain a file of his correspondence with Brown.

On November 4, 2008, Brown voluntarily transferred to the Dearborn, Michigan facility, with the same title and pay, but at a lower grade level. The next day, Brandon sent two emails to a manager at Dearborn, Cheryl Skotak, calling Brown a “peach,” saying she was “stupid,” and asking Skotak to “make sure [Brown] fails miserably.” That same day, Brown filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, not long after, a lawsuit against the Postal Service in federal court.

Brown’s complaint raised several theories of relief, including disparate treatment bias based on race and gender and hostile work environment. The trial judge rejected all of her claims and Brown appealed this decision.

Legal Analysis

The Sixth Circuit first addressed Brown’s disparate treatment claim, which was based on three incidents: Brandon’s attempt to require Brown to work a 12-hour shift on Mondays; Brown’s decision to take an assignment at Dearborn on November 4; and the November 5 “peach” emails.

The Sixth Circuit found that none of the incidents in question rose to the level of an “adverse action” that would cause a “materially adverse change” in Brown’s employment conditions. She had transferred to Dearborn voluntarily, her position was substantially the same as her old one (differing only in grade level), the proposed change to her Monday hours had never materialized, and Brandon’s email to Skotak had no effect on “the terms or conditions of [her] employment.” According to the court, “[i]n the absence of an adverse action, Brown has no threshold case.”

The Sixth Circuit next addressed Brown’s hostile work environment claim. Even though Brown and Brandon “did not get along” and Brandon was not an “ideal boss,” the Sixth Circuit noted that Title VII does not create a workplace “civility code.” Moreover, the court found that Brandon’s comments and Brown’s complaints about training and staffing were not “severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that both she and a reasonable employee would find hostile or abusive.” Thus, the court upheld the dismissal of both her discrimination and hostile work environment claims.

Practical Impact

According to Michelle LeBeau, a shareholder in the Detroit Metro office of Ogletree Deakins: “This case highlights the importance of satisfying the evidentiary burden in disparate treatment cases. The court found no evidence of an ‘adverse action’; thus, the worker’s claim was dismissed. To prevent conflicts from escalating to the level of a Title VII violation, however, employers should immediately intervene when they become aware of objectively abusive or discriminatory conduct, even absent a complaint. In addition, supervisors should be trained to identify unacceptable conduct and respond appropriately.”