Disability-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim, Based in Part on Alleged False Accusations of Misconduct, Survives Dismissal

In Torres-Medina v. Wormuth, No. 21-1362 (SCC), 2022 WL 3557049 (D.Puerto Rico August 18, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

From the decision:

Torres has shown that she is disabled and that the MSC Management harassed her. To determine whether the harassment did, as she says, rise to the level of a “disability-based hostile work environment,” we must first decide which conduct is based on discriminatory or retaliatory animus. See Quiles-Quiles, 438 F.3d at 7–8 (“[A]n employee claiming harassment must demonstrate that the hostile conduct was directed at him because of a characteristic protected by a federal anti-discrimination statute.”). She points to several acts: the MSC Management issued personnel materials that listed different people as her supervisor, rater, and leave approver and did not list her in any position; supervised her even while on military duty; asked her to submit medical documents that she had already submitted; did not copy her on an email that would have informed her that the building where she worked had been freshly painted, causing her to become sick when she arrived; gave her incorrect contact information for Freedom of Information Act requests; told people to stay away from her because it was “already dealing with her”; and refused to give her copies of her personnel documents. She also notes that the CXO’s lover filed a false complaint against her. We can reasonably infer that the harassing conduct by the CXO and her supervisor that had been involved in her EEOC complaints was rooted in retaliatory animus because their evaluations of her referenced her EEOC activity. And because she suggests that the CXO had something to do with his lover filing a false complaint against her, we can reasonably infer that the lover’s act was rooted in retaliatory animus as well. Whether this conduct, taken together, rises to the requisite level of severity and pervasiveness is a close call. Most of the conduct she complains of is rude, unprofessional behavior rather than abusive behavior. The three acts that tip the scale in her favor are the false complaint that the CXO’s lover filed against her, which led to the CXO recommending that she be fired; not telling her that the building where she worked had been freshly painted, causing [her to] become sick; and giving her poor performance evaluations based in part on her EEOC complaints. “[F]alse accusations of misconduct can contribute to the creation of a hostile work environment,” Noviello, 398 F.3d at 93, as can “work sabotage, exclusion, denial of support, and humiliation,” O’Rourke v. City of Providence, 235 F.3d 713, 730 (1st Cir. 2001), and “physically threatening” conduct, Vega-Colón v. Wyeth Pharms., 625 F.3d 22, 32 (1st Cir. 2010). [Cleaned up.]

Based on this, the court held that, taking plaintiff’s allegations as true, “it is plausible that this conduct—in the aggregate—amounted to a hostile work environment” and that, therefore, this claim survived defendant’s motion to dismiss.

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