Court Explains Reasons For Dismissing Prison Nurse’s Title VII Gender-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim

In Evert v. Wyoming Cty. Cmty. Health Sys., No. 14-CV-912S, 2017 WL 1832051 (W.D.N.Y. May 8, 2017) (J. Skretny), the court dismissed plaintiff’s gender discrimination/harassment claim. Plaintiff, a prison nurse, alleged, among other things, that corrections officers began harassing her after she received a letter from an inmate she had treated.

After reciting the law – including that “[m]istreatment at work, whether through subjection to a hostile environment or through such concrete deprivations as being fired or being denied a promotion, is actionable under Title VII only when it occurs because of an employee’s sex, or other protected characteristic” – the court applied it to the facts.

From the decision:

There is scant evidence here that any of the incidents Evert describes were related to her gender. Indeed, Evert relies primarily on comments and actions by her female nursing colleagues as evidence of discrimination. [W]here the plaintiff and the individual whose conduct is at issue are members of the same protected class, the inference that the conduct constitutes harassment or discrimination is weakened. That inference is further weakened here by Evert’s own contentions that Prusak’s [plaintiff’s female supervisor’s] comments were motivated by personality conflict or by some loyalty to the corrections officers, as well as the fact that many of the comments were unrelated to her gender. … Further, Evert herself states that she believes her suspension was prompted by the inmate incident, and not by her gender, and attributes some of the harassment to her colleagues’ fears of losing the income from Attica associated with having the lockup unit inside WCCH. Thus, it appears that WCCH’s actions, including the decision to transfer Evert in order to avoid further conflict with the corrections officers, appear to have been taken in correlation with business decisions. …

As to the derogatory terms used by the male corrections officers, only some of which are gender-specific, Evert herself explains that they were angry with her for accusing an officer of assaulting an inmate and for questioning them as to how the inmate smuggled out a letter. Examining the totality of Evert’s alleged encounters with the corrections officers, most of which comprise unrebutted facially neutral behavior that plaintiff has failed to clothe in discriminatory dress, Evert’s claim fails to meet the necessary standard for actionable gender hostility, despite her subjective belief that they felt entitled to harass her due to her gender. A plaintiff’s speculations, generalities, and gut feelings, however genuine, when they are not supported by specific facts, do not allow for an inference of discrimination to be drawn. Instead, the belief must be reasonable and characterized by objective good faith. Evert offers no facts to support her subjective belief that the statements were made out of discriminatory intent rather than anger at her actions surrounding the inmate incident.

Moreover, Evert admits that she was able to avoid the harassers entirely for two months while completing all of her duties in the ICU. [I]n a gender-based hostile work environment case … the crucial question is not simply whether the remarks to which plaintiffs were subjected were of an explicitly sexual nature. It is rather whether the workplace atmosphere, considered as a whole, undermined plaintiffs’ ability to perform their jobs, compromising their status as equals to men in the workplace. Thus, the alleged harassment by the corrections officers does not meet the standard of severe or pervasive harassment or abuse that interfered with Evert’s ability to do her work. Nor do her co-worker’s teasing comments about receiving “love letters” and having a “boyfriend” rise to harassment.

As the Second Circuit has explained, [e]veryone can be characterized by sex, race, [or] ethnicity … and many bosses are harsh, unjust, and rude. It is therefore important in hostile work environment cases to exclude from consideration personnel decisions that lack a linkage or correlation to the claimed ground of discrimination. Otherwise, the federal courts will become a court of personnel appeals. In this case, there is overwhelming evidence that the hostility toward [Evert] was grounded in workplace dynamics unrelated to her sex … [C]rucially, this overwhelming evidence derives substantially from [Evert] herself, and her own view, clearly expressed, that the harassment was fundamentally the product of a workplace dispute …, and not from her being a woman. Thus, plaintiff has not carried her burden of showing—even for purposes of avoiding summary judgment—that the harassment she faced was rooted in her sex. … Accordingly, the gender discrimination claim must be dismissed.

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