When A Vague Claim of “Hostile Work Environment” is A Discrimination Complaint

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently found that an employee's vague complaint of a hostile-work environment constituted protected activity under Title VII. The case, Yazdian v ConMed Endoscopic Technologies, Inc.,[i] highlights critical issues that employers must consider when dealing with similar vague statements by employees and the importance of treating such statements as tangible complaints about discrimination and/or harassment.

Yazdian v. ConMed

The plaintiff, Reza Yazdian, a first-generation Iranian-American and non-practicing Muslim, worked as a territory manager for ConMed. As a territory manager, Yazdian received numerous awards, bonuses, and promotions for his performance. However, Yazdian had a troubled relationship with his direct supervisor and district manager, Tim Sweatt. Yazdian felt that Sweatt often singled him out because of his ethnic background. Specific incidents included when:

  • Sweatt sent him a National Geographic article about ancient Persia stating, "I took out the subscription to National Geographic for my kids, but this cover story on ancient Iran caught my eye [and] was a very interesting read. Thught [sic] you would want to see it as well."
  • Sweatt sent out gift certificates to the Honey Baked Ham Stores to all territory managers (a customary act for ConMed managers). Sweatt sent an email to Yazdian stating, "Although I believe you have said you do eat pork, I would like to mention that if you have never shopped at this place, they have many other items-the turkey is quite good!"
  • Sweatt rejected an article written by Yazdian for publication in ConMed's newsletter espousing Yazdian's recent sales success as being "far too self-serving."

In June 2010, Yazdian complained to Sweatt about his behavior, saying that Sweatt was "creating a hostile work environment," that Sweatt was the "worst manager [he] had ever had," that numerous co-workers complained about Sweatt's management style, and that Sweatt did not show Yazdian any "longevity or respect." Lastly, he told Sweatt, "I'm in the driver seat, don't think you are[.] You are out of line."

Yazdian also made similar complaints to Sweatt's supervisor and asked to be transferred. Following this, Sweatt emailed human resources to discuss Yazdian's "behavioral issues," including Yazdian's comments. ConMed issued a written warning to Yazdian citing his inappropriate outbursts, combativeness, rudeness or indifference to management, and use of a threatening tone, among other things. The warning also referenced Yazdian's comment that Sweatt was creating a "hostile work environment" and his accusation that Sweatt did not like his race.

Insubordination or Protected Activity?

When Sweatt informed Yazdian of the written warning, Yazdian again responded with, "You are a bad individual," "You make poor decisions," "You are not in a position to challenge me," and "I don't think you are a gentleman." In addition he said, "I'm going to respond with counsel," "You are creating a hostile work environment," "I will be responding with charges," and "I am going to bring a lawsuit against you." Two weeks later ConMed terminated Yazdian's employment.

Yazdian filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, national origin discrimination and retaliation. The district court dismissed all of his claims. Yazdian appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which held that the district court erred in dismissing the retaliation claim. The appellate court reasoned that a jury could conclude that Yazdian was terminated for engaging in protected activity based on his statements to Sweatt.

Protected Activity

ConMed argued that Yazdian's complaints were too vague to qualify as a protected activity – a necessary requirement to prove retaliation. The court disagreed. Importantly, the court indicated that each of the following statements made to Sweatt constituted protected activity under Title VII:

  • "Hostile work environment."
  • "I'm going to respond with counsel."
  • "I'm going to bring you up on charges …."
  • "Bring a lawsuit against [Sweatt]"
  • "I will have an attorney respond."
  • "I will be responding with charges."

These statements, the court said, put ConMed on notice of a national-origin complaint. The court focused on the hostile-work-environment statement and said that the phrase is a term of art specifically referring to "an unlawful employment practice under Title VII" when "the context objectively reveals that the employee is using the expression to complain about repeated abusive discriminatory comments or treatment."[ii]

Even though the court said that many of Yazdian's defiant statements would have supported termination, those inappropriate statements were "intertwined with Yazdian's concerns about a hostile work environment."[iii] Thus, Yazdian was still engaged in a protected activity.

Ultimately, the court held that a jury could conclude that Yazdian had intended the phrase "hostile work environment" to refer to discriminatory treatment because he was aware of the "legal significance" of the term and meant it to be a complaint about national origin or religious discrimination.[iv]

Insight for Employers

The Sixth Circuit's determination that nearly all of Yazdian's arguably vague statements constituted protected activity means that employers will now need to treat such statements as actual complaints about discrimination and/or harassment. As a result, employers will need to conduct an investigation and, when warranted, take prompt and remedial action. A distinguishing factor for employers may be in those cases where they cannot determine from the context of the vague hostile-work-environment statement(s) that the employee is complaining about discrimination/harassment. Employers need to be certain of this, however, before taking a position. Without such certainty, the position may not be defensible in court should the employer forego conducting an investigation and taking prompt remedial action.

[i] Yazdian v ConMed Endoscopic Technologies, Inc, 793 F3d 634 (CA 6, 2015).

[ii] Id. at 646.

[iii] Id. at 652.

[iv] Id. at 646.

Categories: News

Related Articles

New Executive Director begins work at Land Conservancy of West Michigan

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation.

This information on this website is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing of this information does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

© 2019 MDTC. All Rights Reserved.