Most of you know Gordon Ramsay – the British celebrity chef, star of the TV show Hell’s Kitchen and owner of multiple restaurants, known for his hot temper and penchant for verbally abusing his chefs. Consider the following legal scenario – an at-will employee-chef in a protected race, color or sex category suffers one of Mr. Ramsay’s verbal tirades and is terminated. Would the chef have a discrimination claim? No according to a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The case, Vanderveer v. FedEx Ground Package Sys., Civ. A. No. 16-1979, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15221 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 3, 2017), involved a female African-American employee of FedEx Ground whose supervisor, to put it bluntly, acted like a bully and who terminated the employee. The employee sued, bringing claims of race and gender discrimination and retaliation, along with other claims not pertinent here, against FedEx Ground and her male supervisor. The District Court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed all claims, essentially holding that the mere fact that one’s supervisor behaves badly does not give rise to a discrimination claim where the bad behavior was not directed to a particular protected class.
In Vanderveer, the plaintiff was a non-package handler for FedEx Ground. On the date in question, the plaintiff’s supervisor demanded that she work faster, got into an argument with the plaintiff, pointed his finger at the plaintiff’s face and shouted at her, telling her to speed up. The supervisor demanded that the plaintiff come to his office and continued yelling at her. The plaintiff called a human resources representative, and after involvement from another employee and other human resources representatives, the plaintiff was told the matter would be investigated and sent home. The plaintiff had previously complained to human resources about her supervisor’s temper and tone. About a week after the aforementioned incident, the plaintiff was called to a meeting and informed that she was terminated for violating company policies, including being insubordinate and using foul language.
The plaintiff brought race and gender discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) and under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (” PHR A”). The plaintiff also brought race discrimination and retaliation claims under the equal rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The problem with the plaintiff’s claims was that she failed to provide any factual evidence that her supervisor’s actions were motivated by the plaintiff’s race or gender, and she failed to show an inference of intentional discrimination. Regarding the plaintiff’s allegation that she never saw a Caucasian or male employee treated in a similar fashion, the Court found that this was a “legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation,” and as such, was insufficient to support a discrimination claim. The plaintiff also failed to provide any factual details as to how any Caucasian or male employee was treated better than her. The Court stated “[f]actually, the Complaint simply reflects that Steiner lost his temper due to Plaintiff’s slow pace, which escalated into an argument. This is not sufficient.”
With respect to the retaliation claims, the Court found in favor of the defendants, reasoning that an employee’s complaints about her supervisor’s temper and tone, where the employee did not argue that she felt she was being unreasonably treated because of her race or gender, did not give rise to a retaliation claim: “Steiner’s conduct may be considered inappropriate work behavior; however, Title VII is not a ‘general civility code.'” It should be noted that the Court granted the plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint, which the plaintiff did on February 17, 2017. A review of the Amended Complaint does not appear to show that the plaintiff addressed the Court’s concerns, but rather again failed to allege facts sufficient to plead a race or gender discrimination or retaliation claim. The defendants have not yet, but most likely will, move to dismiss these claims as well, and should be successful in doing so.
The lesson from Vanderveer is that it is not actionable race or gender discrimination or retaliation for a supervisor to treat an employee rudely, disrespectfully, harshly or unfairly, where the supervisor does not reference race or gender or base his actions upon race or gender. While one would hope supervisors treat their employees with respect and fairness, the failure to do so without more does not give rise to a discrimination or retaliation claim.