Supporting a Hostile Work Environment Claim
On December 13, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued its decision in Baird v. Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, No. 10-5421. Partially reversing a dismissal of Baird’s claims, the D.C. Circuit rejected the trial court’s attempt to exclude elements of her harassment claim.
Baird was an attorney working for the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. Baird suffered several incidents of what she characterized as harassment, none of which independently involved formal personnel actions. Baird reported these incidents to PBGC management, but PBGC allegedly failed to respond to these incidents or otherwise take corrective action. Baird then filed an EEO complaint for race and gender discrimination and reprisal for protected EEO activity, identifying these incidents (and PBGC’s subsequent failure to respond) both as independent discrete acts and as exemplary incidents in a hostile work environment claim. After proceedings in the administrative process, Baird later took the case into federal district court.
The trial court dismissed Baird’s claims in their entirety. The trial court found that none of the incidents constituted an adverse action sufficient to state a cause of action, even under the broader definition used in reprisal claims. In dismissing the harassment claim, the trial court excluded from the pattern of harassment any actions which were time-barred even if Baird had filed them with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and further excluded from the harassment claim the underlying harassing incidents, focusing instead solely on the PBCG’s failure to take corrective action. Baird then appealed to the D.C. Circuit.
The D.C. Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Baird’s harassment claim, but affirmed dismissal of the discrete act claims on alternate grounds. The D.C. Circuit held that an employer’s discriminatory failure to remediate or correct in response to an employee complaint can state a claim upon which relief can be granted, but found that the specific incidents cited here were each not, standing alone, sufficiently severe to rise to the level of an adverse action or to deter Ms. Baird from making charges of discrimination.
For the harassment claim, the D.C. Circuit rejected the trial court’s per se exclusion of time-barred incidents and the underlying incidents and per se exclusion of matters which Baird pled as discrete acts. The D.C. Circuit noted that harassment claims are deemed a continuing violation and thus can include incidents which would be time-barred if considered as isolated discrete acts, but that the standard for what incidents can be included in a hostile work environment claim is not open-ended. Instead, exemplary incidents (even matters which could be also pled as discrete acts) are to be included or excluded from the hostile work environment claim based on whether or not they fit into the type of actions identified as the pattern of harassment.
The D.C. Circuit did not find Baird’s choice to allege discrete acts dispositive, in that parties are entitled to plead matters in the alternative. Rejecting a PBGC argument, the D.C. Circuit also found that plaintiffs were not necessarily required to attempt segregation between harassment exemplary incidents and discrete acts in order to defeat a motion to dismiss. While the D.C. Circuit took no position on whether or not Baird’s claims met the sufficiency standard for avoiding dismissal under the Supreme Court’s Iqbal decision, it found the grounds relied upon by the trial court for dismissing the harassment claim were erroneous, and so reversed and remanded for further proceedings.