Harassment Claim Fails, Gender Bias Claim Advances

By Erin L. Winters January 2, 2018

​The denial of a worker's job transfer requests was insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held. But the court allowed the plaintiff to proceed with her gender discrimination and retaliation claims alleging that her employer only promoted males.

In a victory for the City of Philadelphia, the district court dismissed the employee's hostile work environment claim because her allegations that the city denied her job transfers did not "suggest" the type of "severe and pervasive" conduct required for a harassment claim to survive.

Philadelphia has employed the plaintiff in its prison system since 2003. In 2015, after being transferred to a position that limited her ability to collect overtime, the plaintiff sought—and the city denied—multiple transfer opportunities that would have allowed her to collect premium pay, including positions with the K-9 unit, inmate escorting division and dry-cleaning operations. She filed a grievance with the city alleging that it favored placing men in overtime assignments, and she ultimately filed a lawsuit with the district court alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What federal laws prohibit job discrimination?]

In dismissing her hostile work environment claim, the court highlighted that the plaintiff needed to set forth physically threatening or humiliating conduct, offensive utterances, or other actions by her supervisor to demonstrate an abusive or hostile work environment.

However, the court said she could proceed with her gender discrimination claim because her allegations were enough to infer the city's intent to discriminate. She alleged that although several women applied to the K-9 unit, the city hired all men for those roles, that at least one of the men hired had to be taken off the job for inadequate performance, and that the city hired less qualified male applicants with less seniority to other positions for which the plaintiff applied.

She could also proceed with her retaliation claim based on her allegations that:

  • Her supervisor requested that she receive counseling after she filed a grievance related to her transfer denials.

  • She suffered "emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, [and] loss of self-esteem" as a result of her supervisor's request.

The city explained that the counseling request "was made in light of her earlier complaints about the lack of cleanliness" in one of the housing units where she worked. The court concluded that, accepting the plaintiff's allegations as true, she "plausibly stated a retaliation claim under Title VII."

Mahan v. City of Philadelphia, E.D. Pa., No. 16-6377 (Nov. 8, 2017).

Professional Pointer: Employers must regularly review applicant pools, as well as hiring and transfer policies and decisions, in order to avoid disparate treatment based on gender.

Erin L. Winters is an attorney with Pacific Employment Law in San Francisco.


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