A previous post discussed a huge jury verdict for an employee who was harassed and mistreated at work due to her religion.  The lesson:  harassing an employee, subjecting her to a hostile work environment, and retaliating against her for complaining about harassment are all wrong, illegal and expensive.

A decision handed down yesterday by the federal appeals Court covering Georgia, Alabama and Florida has made that point again.  In doing so, it further explained that retaliating by creating a hostile work environment for employees who complain about discrimination also violates Title VII — and is also wrong, illegal and expensive.

The case, Gowski v. Peake, involved two doctors who claimed they were being discriminated against (one due to religion, one due to gender) at a VA hospital in Florida.  They filed EEO complaints, and afterwards their work assignments were changed, they were removed from committees and privileged positions, they were reprimanded, counseled and suspended, they were rated lower than in the past, and they were otherwise treated poorly and negatively in ways they had not been treated before their EEO complaints.

The doctors alleged these were not isolated actions, but rather were part of a “concerted effort” by hospital management to retaliate against them for filing their complaints.  The hospital claimed that each individual action was not in retaliation for their complaints, and further that the same action would have been taken even if the doctors had never raised their complaints.  To dispute this position, the doctors offered evidence that all the actions were part of a plan to retaliate against them, even if some of the individual actions might be explained by other facts or circumstances unrelated to their complaints.

At trial, a jury found that the doctors were retaliated against by the hospital and awarded them over $1 million in damages.  While the jury accepted that many of the hospital’s actions would have been taken anyway, even without the doctors’ complaints, the jury also found that the hospital did in fact “scheme” to subject the doctors to a hostile work environment in retaliation for their EEO complaints.

On appeal, the federal appellate Court found, for the first time, that the doctors’ claim for a “retaliatory hostile work environment” is recognized by the law.  (Other federal appellate courts had already reached the same conclusion.)  Based on Title VII’s text, Congressional intent in enacting the law, the EEOC’s interpretation of the law, and the law’s goal to protect those who complain about discrimination, the Court ruled this claim had to be allowed.

Further, the Court ruled that while alone the discreet acts taken against the doctors did not establish a hostile work environment, they could all be considered as part of that claim, along with the evidence of the hospital’s intent to retaliate against the doctors for complaining.  Here, while may of the actions had other reasons or purposes supporting them, they were still motivated, at least in part, by a retaliatory intent.  Ultimately, the Court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the hospital created a workplace for the doctors that was filled with intimidation and ridicule sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the doctors’ working conditions — the hallmark requirement for a hostile work environment.

This case further clarifies what HR professionals already understand:  Retaliation is a form of hostility, and so a hostile work environment can be motivated by retaliation against employees who file complaints of discrimination.  The Court’s ruling, and the jury’s verdict for these doctors, reaffirms how important it is to ensure that those who complain about discrimination are not retaliated against for doing so.  In this case, the jury ultimately REJECTED the doctors’ complaints of discrimination.  But, they concluded that the doctors were retaliated against for complaining and their workplace was made hostile, in violation of Title VII.

This hospital defeated the doctors underlying claims of discrimination.  But, because the hospital retaliated against the doctors for complaining, it ended up the big loser.

Don’t let this happen to your company.