Employment DiscriminationThe Michigan Court of Appeals sent a strong message that employment lawsuits should not be analogous to a Rorschach test, i.e., subject to interpretation.

Instead, there are certain fundamental pleading requirements that must be alleged in order to state a claim; Failing to follow these requirements may result in a dismissal of the claim. The decision also highlights an important distinction between race-based discrimination and a hostile work environment based on race.

Specifically, in Perry v. Department of Human Servs. (6/26/2014), the court reversed a $21,000 judgment for the plaintiff employee and remanded for entry of an order of involuntary dismissal. The plaintiff, was African-American and began working for the employer in 2003. In 2009, one of her co-workers placed a stuffed toy gorilla on a cubicle wall that separated her work space from common areas and other employee work stations. This formed the basis for a race-based discrimination claim. And with a little creative interpretation by the trial court, a hostile work environment claim.

Race-Based Discrimination vs. Hostile Work Environment Claim. 

Under Michigan law,  Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), a claim of race-base discrimination is distinct from a hostile work environment claim.

A race-based discrimination claim happens if an employer fails to “hire or recruit, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to employment, compensation, or a term, condition or privilege of employment [because of race].” MCL 37.2202(1)(a).

In contrast, a hostile work environment claim is actionable when the work environment is so tainted that, in the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have perceived the conduct at issue as substantially interfering with employment or having the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive employment environment.

The distinction between Race-Based Discrimination and Hostile Work Environment Claims Matter. 

Returning to the Perry lawsuit, the plaintiff had clearly alleged a claim of race-based discrimination. But the trial court found that she “failed to produce evidence to support that she ‘suffered adverse employment actions’ because of her race.” However, the trial court found that she “had alleged and proved a racial harassment/hostile work environment claim.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed and called out the trial court for essentially re-writing the plaintiff’s lawsuit. In this regard, the Court of Appeals rejected the trial court’s assessment that the complaint contained “gray language” where plaintiff referred to workplace discrimination. Instead, focusing on this “gray language” the Court focused on the undisputed facts – the plaintiff “did not allege a hostile-work environment in her original complaint, nor did she seek to amend the complaint to add a hostile-work environment claim.”

Even with the trial court’s benefit of the doubt analysis in favor of the plaintiff, the Court of Appeals found no support for finding a hostile work environment. Specifically, there was no evidence:

  • That the placement of the gorilla was racially motivated.
  • There also was “no evidence of racially derogative comments or threats directed at plaintiff in connection with the incident”
  • To indicate that “anyone displayed prejudice or animus toward plaintiff.
  • That the conduct at issue was anything other than an isolated event. The toy gorilla was in plaintiff’s workplace for a total of three weeks” during her six years of employment. 

The Take-Away

As a employment law defense attorney, there is nothing more frustrating to defend against an employment discrimination lawsuit, working up a motion to dismiss it only to have a creative plaintiff attorney respond to the motion with something to the effect of “what we really intended to say was …”

Defending against an employment discrimination claim should not be a game of “go fish” or trial by ambush. Instead, there are certain fundamental pleading requirements that must be alleged in order to state a claim. Chief among those requirements, the complaint must contain “specific allegations necessary reasonably to inform the adverse party of the nature of the claims the adverse party is called on to defend,” MCR 2.111(B)(1), and each allegation must be “clear, concise and direct.” MCR 2.111(A)(1).

If these basic requirements are not met, employers should not have to figure out what claims must be defended or wait for a court to interpret and construe the pleadings in a manner favorable to one side or the other.

For more information about employment defending against discrimination lawsuits, contact Jason Shinn.