Workplace Slights, Annoyances Insufficient to Prove Title VII Adverse Employment Actions

Determining that a postal worker did not establish he suffered any material adverse employment action when his employer allegedly allowed female employees to take longer coffee breaks than he was permitted, and that his retaliation claims were not substantial, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston has reversed a $365,000 judgment in favor of an employee in a Title VII gender discrimination and retaliation case. Morales-Vallellanes v. Potter, No. 08-2452 (1st Cir. May 11, 2010). The Court vacated the jury verdict and returned the case to the lower court with instructions to enter judgment in the employer's favor. The First Circuit has jurisdiction over Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.

Background

Angel David Morales-Vallellanes (“Morales”) began working for the United States Postal Service in 1988. In 1995, he worked in Caparra Heights, Puerto Rico, USPS station as a Distribution and Window Clerk. He had an arm injury that limited the tasks he could perform without pain and typically performed back-office distribution duties, rarely window duties. He was trained for window duties, did so on occasion, and those tasks were part of his job description.

In 1996, Morales filed several complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging, among other things, gender discrimination and retaliation. His gender discrimination claim alleged the USPS permitted Mayra Irene, a female employee, to take longer coffee breaks than male employees.

He alleged that after he complained about the unfair application of the break policy, his supervisor and co-workers began to take various retaliatory actions against him and he then filed retaliation claims. Morales claimed that his supervisor monitored all employees to ensure that they clocked in and out for breaks. He also claimed that his back-office duties were temporarily reassigned to Irene and he was given window duties to perform. Further, he claimed that when he expressed interest in bidding for a Distribution and Window Clerk position that was expected to include Saturdays and Sundays off, a highly desirable schedule, the USPS reclassified and posted the position with Thursdays and Sundays off. Morales alleged that the USPS changed the posting to dissuade him from bidding for the position in retaliation for complaining about alleged gender discrimination.

After the EEOC dismissed the charges, Morales filed suit in federal district court against USPS, asserting Title VII claims for alleged gender discrimination and retaliation. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Morales. The district court then denied the USPS’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. The USPS then appealed, arguing that Morales failed to establish that he suffered any adverse employment action as a matter of law.

Requirements for Adverse Employment and Retaliation Claims

In order to present a legally viable claim of employment discrimination under Title VII, a plaintiff must show, among other things, that he suffered an "adverse employment action" on account of a characteristic protected by Title VII, i.e., race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. An adverse employment action is one that affects or alters “the conditions of the workplace” and typically involves “discrete changes in the terms of employment,” such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing significant change in benefits. A materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment “must be more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities.”

In a retaliation action, the plaintiff may satisfy the adverse employment action requirement by showing that the action “might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

Gender Discrimination Claim Fails

The Court found that Morales failed to demonstrate his complaints constituted adverse employment actions. With respect to the gender discrimination claim, the Court found that even if the USPS enforced its coffee-break policy in a manner more favorable to its female employees, “such selective enforcement of the breaks policy had no material effect on Morales’s employment and therefore cannot constitute discrimination within the meaning of the statute.”

Retaliation Claims Fail

With respect to the coffee-break retaliation claim, the Court determined that Morales was not “treated differently than other employees.” The Court pointed out that the complaint rested “on the assertion that all employees were treated equally,” the supervisor monitored all employees’ breaks. The Court found that such an action would not “dissuade a reasonable employee from filing or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

With respect to the job-duties retaliation claim, the Court found the rotation in job duties to a female clerk was not an adverse employment action. Morales presented no evidence that window duties were “more difficult, less prestigious, or objectively inferior to Morales’s distribution duties; rather, the gravamen of Morales's complaint is that he preferred his regular assignment.” The Court concluded, “Such a minor disruption in the tasks Morales preferred to perform cannot, as a matter of law, sustain his claim for damages under Title VII.”

With respect to the job-posting retaliation claim, the Court stated, “[The] change in rest days was insufficient to dissuade a reasonable employee from filing or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Indeed, there was no evidence that this change affected Morales more than other employees bidding on the job. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations did not support his retaliation claim as a matter of law.

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This case provides guidance regarding the meaning of an adverse employment action and the types of actions not recoverable under Title VII. Significantly, minor workplace slights or trivialities, such as coffee breaks and temporary job changes, are not prohibited by the law.

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