Link Between Bullying & Discrimination

One of the most common types of lawsuits facing American employers is a discrimination lawsuit.

Workplace bullying and discrimination are closely intertwined and one might even say that bullying precipitates many discrimination lawsuits

Discrimination involves unfair treatment of an individual or group of individuals because of a distinguishing characteristic that is protected under state or federal law, such as sex, race, national origin, disability, religion, etc.   But it also frequently also involves workplace bullying, which is the systematic and repeated harassment of an employee over a period of time..  One employee  – often  a supervisor – attempts to exercise improper power and control over another, often a subordinate.

Even people who despise women or minorities probably would tolerate them if they silently accept whatever abuse the bully chooses to inflict upon them, never outshine or demonstrate competence that threatens the bully and act with complete subservience at all times. Of course, that doesn’t always happens. Targets of discrimination often complain and demand to be treated with fairness. That’s when the workplace bullying begins in earnest. A bully cannot tolerate a target who refuses to aknowledge the bully’s “right” to exercise complete power and control over the target.

Employers never win when they are sued by workers. Among other things, employers have to spend money to defend themselves. It is estimated that it costs an employer $100,000 to defend even the weakest and least meritorious lawsuit, nevermind a strong case that may ultimately result in a settlement or a judgment for the plaintiff.

Last March, a physician’s assistant at a Sacramento hospital won a jury award of $168 million after alleging she was harassed by cardiac surgeons at the hospital.  She filed 18 complaints with the Human Resources Department, which not only ignored her complaints but actually fired her! She speculates the hospital’s failure to address her complaints was because the cardiac surgeons are the highest revenue producers in the hospital. The jury award included $128 million in punitive damages.

Many industrialized countries have adopted health and safety laws and other kinds of legislation to protect workers from bullying and harassment, and to require employers to provide all employees with a workplace free from bullying and psychological harassment.  But America has resisted efforts to protect workers here from bullying for more than a decade. Why?

Some unscrupulous employers use bullying  strategically to get rid of good employees and to avoid legal obligations, such as paying worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits.  Some unscrupulous employers use bullying to thwart unions and  drive out workers who demand their rights under the law. In some cases, the worker actually has a technical right  under some law to sue the employer but the reality is that few workers today can afford the legal process. And it’s biased in favor of employers anyway.

Finally, it is not inconceivable that there’s a lot of ignorance out there  about how much workplace bullying costs American employers – literally billions of dollars a year- in unnecessary turnover, lost work and needless litigation.

The unscrupulous employers are probably a small minority of American employers. Most employers want to follow the law and be good citizens. 

There is an easy and relatively inexpensive way for good employers to mimize the risk of a  potentially catastrophic discrmination lawsuit . They should adopt and rigorously enforce a general anti-harassment anti-bullying policy that makes it clear that bullying will not be tolerated by anyone in the organization, including cardiac surgeons and the Chief Executive Officer.  By the way, that’s also the right thing to do. Doesn’t every employee deserve to be treated with dignity and respect?

Those who are interested in reading more about this topic should read my new book, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace.

Feds Anti-Bully Plan

Minnesota’s largest school district will take wide-ranging steps to protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment under the terms of a settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Dept. of  Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board approved the proposed settlement on Monday but it must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen to take effect. The federal agencies will monitor the district’s compliance with the agreement until 2017.

The settlement is  significant with respect to the problem of workplace bullying for two reasons.

It sheds light on what the DOJ and the OCR deem to be important steps to address the general problem of harassment.

And the feds based their lawsuit on alleged violations of laws that potentially could apply to targets of workplace bullying — Discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S.Constitution; Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000c–2000c-9 (Title IV), and; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681–1688 (Title IX).

There are major differences between how the law treats students and adults but the Minnesota school settlement could be interpreted as evidence that society no longer condones bullying and harassment on the basis of sex or perceived sexual orientation. If that is the case, harassment of this type should not be acceptable in either schools or the workplace.

Authorities began investigating the Anoka-Hennepin School District in 2010 after receiving a complaint that it had failed to adequately address peer-on-peer harassment on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights subsequently filed a lawsuit on behalf of six students, who will received $270,000 under the settlement.

The students said they faced a constant torrent of anti-gay slurs due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation. They also said they were choked, shoved, urinated on and even stabbed with a pencil.

The students said an 18-year-old “gag rule” adopted by the district hampered the efforts of teachers to end the harassment and stigmatized gay and lesbian students.The policy required staff to stay neutral on LGBT topics in school. The policywas replaced in February with a new policy that requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, including LGBT students.

Among other things, the settlement requires the District to:

  • Retain an Equity Consultant to provide a systemic review and recommend any needed revisions to district policies related to harassment, as well as district procedures relating to the investigation and response to incidents of harassment, parental notification, and tracking of harassment incidents.
  • Hire a Title IX/Equity Coordinator to implement district policies and procedures, monitor complaints, ensure that district administrators and staff adhere to sex and sexual orientation-based discrimination laws, and identify trends and common areas of concern.
  • Work with the Equity Consultant and Title IX Coordinator/Equity Coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.
  • Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.
  • Hire a mental health consultant to review and access current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.
  • Provide additional specificity to further strengthen the District’s annual anti-bullying survey.
  • Expand the district’s harassment-prevention task force formed the summer of 2011 to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate for all students.
  • Work with the Equity Consultant to further identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is or becomes problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work with the Equity Consultant to develop actions that better align with a safe, welcoming school environment.
  • Require District personnel  to investigate, address, and respond appropriately to every harassment incident, whether reported (verbally or in writing) by the harassed student, a witness, a parent, or any other individual; observed by any District employee; or brought to the District’s attention by any other means;
  • Provide contact information, including the physical address, phone number and email address, for the District’s Title IX Coordinator and Equity Coordinator.
  • Develop procedures for parental notifications that are sensitive to a student’s right of privacy regarding his or her real or perceived orientation or gender identity.
  • Provide a link on the school web site to an incident reporting form and allow direct electronic submission of complaints.

Harassment was defined in the federal lawsuit as ” … the use of derogatory language, intimidation, and threats; unwanted physical contact and/or physical violence, or the use of derogatory language and images in graffiti, pictures or drawings, notes, e-mails, electronic postings and/or phone messages related to a person’s membership in a protected class.”

The lawsuits will be dismissed with the district denying fault or wrongdoing.

Federal investigators reviewed more than 7,000 district documents and included interviews with more than 60 individuals, including current and former students, parents, district staff, teachers and administrators.

Minnesota School Bully Lawsuit

June 22, 2011 – In recent years, schoolyard bullying has become a focus of concern in America, and this concern has spilled over to  workplace bullying.

Now Minnesota’s biggest school district is being sued for allegedly enacting policies that discriminate against homosexual students in its Anoka-Hennpin School District. As a result, the lawsuit alleges, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and those “perceived as LGBT have been subjected to a constant torrent of slurs and have been physically threatened or attacked by peers.”  See complaint here.

The suit objects to the school district’s “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy,” which allegedly prohibits staffers from acknowledging the existence of LGBT people and, according to the suit, prevents teachers from effectively intervening when they see bullying taking place.  The policy states: “Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”

The lawsuit states three distinct causes of action:

  •  U.S. Constitution Amendment XIV, Denial of Equal Protection on the Basis of Sexual Orientation

Defendants, acting under color of state law, have deprived plaintiffs of the rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in that Defendants, without justification, have Treated plaintiffs differently than other similarly situated students and student groups on  basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation.

  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq.Discrimination Based on Sex 

The School District and each school within the District attended are recipients of federal financial assistance. The acts and omissions of Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ rights under Title IX by discriminating on the basis of sex. Defendants had actual notice that harassment based on sex was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it created a hostile climate based on sex that deprived Plaintiffs of access to educational programs, activities, and opportunities.

[Note: Title IX states that “no person” (which includes workers!) in the  United States “shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance … .” ]

The acts and omissions of Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ rights under the Minnesota Human Rights Act by discriminating against their full utilization and benefit of an educational institution on the basis of sexual orientation. Defendants aided, abetted, and incited discrimination against Plaintiffs based on sexual orientation that prevented her full utilization of and benefit from an educational institution.

The suit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the law firm of Faegre & Benson.

U.S. Civil Rights Laws & Workplace Bullying at Schools

The Office for Civil Rights of the  U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance on Oct. 26, 2010 reminding schools that federal civil rights laws also may protect students who are bullied.  Although the DOE does not address this in the guidance, federal civil rights laws also apply to workers at educational institutions receiving federal funds (this may also include libraries, training programs, etc.). Therefore, this guidance is relevant to victims of workplace bullying at educational institutions. PGB

Here is a short excerpt from the Office of Civil Rights guidance:

… In recent years, many state departments of education and local school districts have taken steps to reduce bullying in schools. The U.S. Department of Education (Department) fully supports these efforts. Bullying fosters a climate of fear and disrespect that can seriously impair the physical and psychological health of its victims and create conditions that negatively affect learning, thereby undermining the ability of students to achieve their full potential.

The movement to adopt anti-bullying policies reflects schools’ appreciation of their important responsibility to maintain a safe learning environment for all students. I am writing to remind you, however, that some student misconduct that falls under a school’s anti-bullying policy also may trigger responsibilities under one or more of the federal antidiscrimination laws enforced by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

… by limiting its response to a specific application of its anti-bullying disciplinary policy, a school may fail to properly consider whether the student misconduct also results in discriminatory harassment. The statutes that OCR enforces include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504); and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). Section 504 and Title II prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.

School districts may violate these civil rights statutes and the Department’s implementing regulations when peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees. School personnel who understand their legal obligations to address harassment under these laws are in the best position to prevent it from occurring and to respond appropriately when it does.

Although this letter focuses on the elementary and secondary school context, the legal principles also apply to postsecondary institutions covered by the laws and regulations enforced by OCR …

… The statutes that OCR enforces include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504); and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). Section 504 and Title II prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. School districts may violate these civil rights statutes and the Department’s implementing regulations when peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees.

Note:  A complaint of discrimination can be filed by anyone who believes that a school that receives Federal financial assistance has discriminated against someone on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age. The person or organization filing the complaint need not be a victim of the alleged discrimination, but may complain on behalf of another person or group. Information about how to file a complaint with OCR is at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/complaintintro.html or by contacting OCR’s Customer Service Team at 1‐800‐421‐3481.