Most hostile environment harassment claims brought under Title VII involve allegations of offensive conduct by the plaintiff’s supervisors or co-workers. In a few situations, the employee alleges that his or her subordinates created the hostile and offensive working environment. Earlier this month in an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) rejected a hostile environment gender harassment claim brought by a fire department lieutenant who accused firefighters reporting to her of discriminatory behavior.
In Fox v. Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue Dept., Inc., the plaintiff alleged that shortly after her promotion, male firefighters whom she supervised, subjected her to a pattern of continuous condescending and disrespectful behavior, such as ignoring her instructions and leaving the premises without authorization. She claimed that she was fired after the Department learned that she had retained an attorney and intended to file an EEOC charge. The district court dismissed all claims on summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
The Fourth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s Title VII hostile environment harassment claim. It concluded that her subordinates’ discourteous, insubordinate and boorish conduct did not rise to the level of a hostile and offensive work environment, and that the plaintiff could not demonstrate that it was based on her gender. The court did however, reinstate the plaintiff’s retaliation claim.
This decision stands in contrast to recent Fourth Circuit decisions that have lowered the bar for employees to avoid summary judgment on hostile work environment claims under Title VII. Although not explicitly stated in the opinion, courts often assume that supervisors have the inherent authority to stop harassing conduct by subordinate employees through the company’s disciplinary procedures. In less common situations, federal courts have found such behavior to constitute hostile working environments where the plaintiff demonstrates that she was unable to discipline the harassers due to lack of support from higher management.
Regardless of this decision, employers should not ignore claims of harassment made by supervisors involving employees who report to them. The response to the complaint can include emphasizing to the supervisor his or her authority to directly deal with the employees’ behavior through disciplinary measures provided by the company.