/publications/issue/2003/2003-05/2003-05-7187

Workplace Annoyances Do Not Rise to the Level of Unlawful Discrimination

Author: Larry M. Simonsmeier, JD, RPh

Issue of the Case:
An Illinois federal court was asked, in this case, to decide whether the plaintiff pharmacist was harassed and discriminated against by coworkers and management when her job assignments were modified and monitored.

Facts of the Case:
The plaintiff, who is a member of a protected group (African Americans) under the Civil Rights Act, was employed as a staff pharmacist at the defendant hospital until she voluntarily resigned after filing this lawsuit. The plaintiff?s employment and racial-harassment allegations included complaints that coworkers provided negative input on her performance evaluation by informing management that she took long breaks and lunches, talked on the telephone a great deal, and pretended to look things up on the computer. Another pharmacist, upon seeing a rash on the plaintiff?s arm, asked if she had ringworm.

At a department meeting, a pharmacist stated that "Mondays are back," referring to the plaintiff?s return to the Monday shift. The plaintiff further alleged that coworkers took work out of her hands and filled the orders themselves, urged her to work faster, and bossed her around. When the plaintiff began experiencing serious performance problems, she was reassigned to the day shift. The plaintiff claimed that this change was so that the manager could "watch her." Despite this reassignment, she continued to make prescription errors and was told to discontinue her diabetic patient counseling until she could process drug orders correctly. The plaintiff complained to the hospital?s human relations department that this was harassment. In spite of the alleged harassment and work-performance problems, the plaintiff applied for a pharmacy supervisor position. She was told that she would not be considered for the promotion "due to what is going on." She soon thereafter filed this lawsuit, resigned, and began working for a large chain pharmacy at a higher salary.

The Court?s Ruling:
The defendant?s motion for summary judgment dismissing the case was granted.

The Court?s Reasoning:
In her response to the defendant?s motion, the plaintiff did not mention her denial of a promotion, nor was there any allegation of a valid discharge that forced her to seek new employment. The court?s focus, therefore, was on whether her claim of a hostile work environment was based on her race. In order to make a successful racial-harassment claim, a plaintiff must show that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of the victim?s employment and to create an abusive working atmosphere. In making this determination, the courts must consider the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, and whether it is physically threatening or a mere offensive utterance.

The court noted its doubts concerning the plaintiff?s claim that these circumstances established a severe hostile work environment. Her allegations concerning coworkers were more appropriately characterized as routine workplace annoyances than unlawful harassment. As unpleasant as the circumstances may have been, they did not rise to the level of being unlawful. An employer has an affirmative defense to a harassment claim if it can demonstrate that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior. Even the plaintiff herself acknowledged that, once she reported the alleged harassment, the hospital administration promptly investigated the charges. The court concluded that none of the incidents in which the plaintiff complained related to race in any way. There was simply no basis for a link between the plaintiff?s difficulties at work and her race.


Larry M. Simonsmeier, JD, RPhLarry M. Simonsmeier is Emeritus Professor of Pharmacy Law at Washington State University College of Pharmacy.