The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reminds us that while Congress’ antidiscrimination laws are designed to protect workers’ rights, they are “not intended to function as a collective panacea for every work-related experience that is in some respect unjust, unfair, or unpleasant.” Consistent with this statement, the court dismissed the claims of four female radiology technicians who complained that their supervisor’s abrasive behavior and its resulting “nerve-wracking” work environment caused each of them to leave her employment at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. Ahern, et al v. Shinseki, 1st Cir., 09-1985, December 13, 2010.

Eileen Ahern, Debra Auger, Maureen Mastalerz, and Lynda Parker were employed as radiology technicians in the diagnostic imaging service (DIS) of a VA Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. All four reported to a chief technologist (Joan Beaudoin) who, in turn, reported to the administrative officer, Mehrdad Khatib, who was in charge of personnel management. When Khatib first took over, the DIS employed 16 staff technologists, 14 of whom were female. Khatib hired contract technologists, 11 of whom were male and 7 of whom were female.

Beginning in 2003, the plaintiffs and several of their co-workers complained to Beaudoin about Khatib’s management style, claiming that Khatib was creating “stressful working conditions” and a “hostile working environment.” Khatib was advised of the issues, and was asked to work to resolve them.

Early in 2004, Khatib advised Beaudoin that the 4-day workweek schedule by certain of the technologists, including all four plaintiffs, was creating inefficiencies, and asked Beaudoin to change that schedule to a regular 5-day workweek. This change was not implemented, although Beaudoin ultimately instituted a modified version of Khatib’s proposal that included keeping the 4-day workweek intact.

In April 2004, the plaintiffs, along with three female and two male coworkers, submitted a formal complaint about Khatib, suggesting that he had proposed the 5-day workweek in retaliation for the employees’ initial complaints against him, and complaining that he had treated a particular male employee “with more respect” than others, that he was “bullying” the staff, that he harbored “unreasonable and unrealistic expectations,” and that he was setting employees up to “look and feel like failures.” While the complaints were identified as “sex discrimination,” they included a statement that Khatib also treated certain male employees “horribly.”

All four plaintiffs ultimately left the VA Hospital and filed a lawsuit, claiming gender-based discriminatory hiring, retaliation, and constructive discharge. The lower court entered summary judgment for the hospital, which was upheld by the First Circuit on appeal.

The First Circuit found that because none of the plaintiffs actually applied for any of the positions filled by Khatib, there could be no gender-based discrimination against hiring them. In response to the claim of retaliation, the Court held that the plaintiffs were unable to show the required “materially adverse action” that underlay the claim. While the plaintiffs pointed to Khatib’s attempt to change their 4-day workweek, the Court specifically found that “[m]erely proposing a change in an employee’s schedule does not, in and of itself, constitute a materially adverse action.” Because Khatib’s plan was never brought to fruition, no materially adverse action occurred and, therefore, no retaliation could be proven. In response to the plaintiff’s last claim, the Court found that the allegation of constructive discharge was not sufficiently supported, because the plaintiffs failed to show that their working conditions were “so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person . . . would have felt compelled to resign. While the Court agreed that plaintiffs’ evidence showed that Khatib’s behavior “created divisiveness and unrest among employees who worked under him,” and that it “may have engendered a “nerve-wracking environment,” that environment was not based on gender. The Court pointed out that “generally disagreeable behavior and discriminatory animus are two different things.”

Working for a difficult or even unreasonable supervisor can be burdensome, but unless evidence exists to show that such behavior by a supervisor is gender based, Title VII is not the appropriate vehicle for recourse. Of course, this case should not be read to justify overlooking or ignoring complaints made by employees. An employer’s obligation to effectively and promptly investigate employee complaints should not be taken lightly. While Title VII and other state and federal antidiscrimination laws are not meant to be viewed as a code of general civility, the parameters set by those statutes should be reviewed, understood, and enforced by employers, in order to avoid the risk of liability that accompanies their violation.