Email Abuse Creates Hostile Environment
The Office of Federal Operations (OFO) of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently held that a supervisor’s improper use of a subordinate’s email account alone is enough to support a claim of a hostile work environment. Tittle v. Department of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0120102149 (September 7, 2010).
Debra Tittle filed a formal EEO complaint alleging sex discrimination resulting in a hostile work environment after her supervisor asked her for the password to her computer, and then used her email account to send an offensive email to a female coworker. Her employer, the Department of Justice, issued a final decision dismissing Tittle’s complaint for failure to state a claim. Tittle appealed the dismissal.
The agency argued that the email allegedly sent by the supervisor was directed at another employee and not at Tittle, and she therefore did not suffer any harm as a result. Even if the email had been directed at Tittle, the agency argued, a single email is not enough to detrimentally alter a term, condition or privilege of her employment and thus state a viable sexual harassment claim.
The OFO noted that in certain cases the actions of a supervisor can be so egregious that they can support a hostile work environment claim without any other evidence of discrimination. The OFO found that the conduct of Tittle’s supervisor in this instance was enough to support her harassment claim. Even if the contents of the email were not directed at her, the OFO found that the agency should have considered the supervisor’s conduct leading up to the improper email before dismissing the claim: The supervisor obtained Tittle’s email address under false pretenses and then used her account to send an offensive email without her knowledge, which might have resulted in allegations of harassment being brought against Tittle herself. This action, the OFO held, dealt such a blow to the necessary trust of a subordinate in her supervisor and created enough potential for harm that Tittle could bring a harassment claim on that basis alone.