A woman who was called a "bitch" by coworkers while she was on a leave of absence could not make out a claim for hostile environment sexual harassment under Title VII, the Fourth Circuit held in Pueschel v. Peters, No. 08-1351 (4th Cir. Aug. 18, 2009) (PDF).
On April 5, 1994, while a claim Pueschel filed with the EEOC in 1992 was being processed, Pueschel alleges that she suffered a stress-related episode at work that caused her to leave work permanently. The FAA placed her on leave without pay status where she remained until her termination in January 1999 for medical inability to perform her duties.
She claims that while she was on leave, her coworkers referred to her behind her back as a "bitch," "useless bitch" and "f-ing bitch." She sued the FAA for hostile environment sexual harassment under Title VII, but the District Court dismissed the claim on summary judgment.
Without even reaching the question of whether the name-calling was severe and pervasive, the Fourth Circuit found no actionable sexual harassment:
At bottom, a claimant must show that she is subject to "an abusive working environment." Harris, 510 U.S. at 22 (emphasis added) (internal quotations omitted). Pueschel has not met this requirement because she cannot demonstrate that she was part of the working environment that she alleges was abusive. Pueschel went on LWOP in 1994. The incidents that she alleges created a hostile work environment occurred in 1997 and 1998. Thus, even if the offensive conduct was severe or pervasive, Pueschel cannot prevail because the abusive work environment, based upon her allegations, did not exist until three years after she left the workplace.
Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her sexual harassment claim.