When A Work Environment That Seems Hostile Isn’t A “Hostile Work Environment”

In a recent case, Shavuo v. Shinseki, the Southern District of New York highlighted the often-misunderstood difference between a work environment that may seem “hostile” and a  “hostile work environment” (as that term is used in employment discrimination law).

The court stated:

With respect to Shavuo’s repeated references to a “hostile work environment,” we again caution him against using this particular phrase to describe his remaining claims in front of the jury. First, Shavuo does not have a pending “hostile work environment” claim of any kind. Yet that term carries legal connotations, calling to mind a claim based on severe and pervasive harassment due to a protected characteristic. Use of this term could easily confuse and mislead the jury as to the claims to be decided. Second, as a practical matter, Shavuo need not rely on this expression to make his point. As we construe his theory, Shavuo argues that the longstanding bad blood between him and Bagala, his related anxieties and fears about losing his job, and the VA’s refusal to accommodate him despite these circumstances constituted a “hostile work environment,” which exacerbated his psychiatric disorders and inflicted further anguish. … We make no comment on the merits of that theory but again stress that Shavuo can and should avoid using the term “hostile work environment” to describe it, as that term is inaccurate and confusing.

The court had previously noted, in a decision issued two days prior in the same case, that while plaintiff “plainly felt his work environment was hostile and bad for his health” the term should not be used because “it carries its own legal connotations.”

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