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In Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge initially treats his employee, Bob Cratchit, in an undeniably hostile manner (along with all the others he comes into contact with).  The question is:  Would Bob Cratchit be able to pursue a cause of action as a result of his poor treatment?  We often receive phone calls from individuals who believe they were treated so poorly that they have grounds to pursue a cause of action (that is, they have an actionable claim).  This blog post will explore the difference between a workplace that is hostile and a “hostile work environment” for purposes of an actionable claim.

In Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 594 F.3d 798 (11th Cir. 2010), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Florida is in the Eleventh Circuit) stated the following concerning proving a cause of action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act[1]:

[T]o prove a hostile work environment under [Title VII], a plaintiff must show that her employer discriminated because of her membership in a protected group, and that the offensive conduct was either severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms or conditions of employment; second, Title VII is not a civility code, and not all profane or sexual language or conduct will constitute discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment; third, workplace conduct cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather is to be viewed cumulatively, and in its social context; and fourth, a plaintiff can prove a hostile work environment by showing severe or pervasive discrimination directed against her protected group, even if she herself is not individually singled out in the offensive conduct.

Reeves, 594 F.3d at 807 (emphasis added).  A plaintiff attempting to establish a hostile work environment claim “must prove that the environment was both subjectively and objectively hostile.”  Id. at 809.  In other words, a reasonable person must also perceive the environment as hostile; the plaintiff’s perception alone is not enough.  As the Eleventh Circuit has noted, “‘Title VII does not prohibit profanity alone, however profane.  It does not prohibit harassment alone, however severe and pervasive.  Instead, Title VII prohibits discrimination, including harassment that discriminates based on a protected category such as sex.’”  Id. (quoting Baldwin v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Ala., 480 F.3d 1287, 1301-02 (11th Cir. 1982)).  The context of the statements matters, and the courts will examine the totality of the conduct to determine if Title VII was violated.  See Reeves, 594 F.3d at 810-11.  As the Fifth District Court of Appeal (one of the soon-to-be six intermediate appellate courts in Florida) has noted, cases brought under Title VII (and the Florida Civil Rights Act) “are fact-specific in the extreme . . . .”  Dupont, 933 So. 2d at 84.

As we often tell clients, it is not illegal to just be a difficult or abusive person.  Although Scrooge certainly mistreated Mr. Cratchit prior to his epiphany, there is no evidence that Scrooge would be liable in a modern context.

We hope you and yours have a safe and happy holiday season.  If you have any questions or concerns regarding this topic, or any topic related to labor and employment law, please contact us.

[1] Title VII applies to claims of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin discrimination.  The Florida Civil Rights Act is interpreted in the same manner as Title VII, although the Florida Civil Rights Act is broader (for example, it also includes age and marital status as protected categories).  Speedway SuperAmerica, LLC v. Dupont, 933 So. 2d 75, 79-80 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006).

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