Supervisor’s Inappropriate Behavior Not Actionable Harassment or Retaliation


In spite of a supervisor’s inappropriate behavior, a New York court stopped a female employee from pursuing hostile work environment and retaliation claims. Patterson v. Xerox Corp. (W.D.N.Y. 2012).

Vanessa Patterson contended that her supervisor was often antagonistic to the entire work group and that daily meetings were ugly and argumentative. The supervisor told employees that he was a male chauvinist, that he could do whatever he wanted and management would back him, and that he would spank Patterson because she needed to learn to respect men and their titles. Patterson alleged the supervisor also made racially insensitive comments. This behavior led her to file sex and race discrimination claims.

While the court agreed that the comments were offensive, it found that they were isolated. The court also found that most of the conduct was directed at the entire group consisting of men and women of different races, not at Patterson. And, the court was influenced by the fact that Patterson, who continues to work for Xerox, only reported to this supervisor for 20 months of her 20 years of employment. Stating that Title VII does not establish a general civility code, the court dismissed the hostile work environment claim because most of the behavior was not race- or gender-based and the behavior that was race or gender based was not severe or pervasive.

Patterson also claimed that the supervisor unlawfully retaliated against her after she filed a sexual harassment claim against another male employee. Patterson said that after she filed her claim, the supervisor retaliated against her by refusing to let her leave work to pick up a payroll check that Xerox had mistakenly failed to give her, showing Patterson a written verbal warning he had written to her stating she must respect his position as supervisor, and refusing to let her make up an hour of work after she came in late. 

The court denied this claim as well based on the current standard for unlawful retaliation, which is that, after participating in a protected activity, the employee suffers a “materially adverse action that would discourage a reasonable person from making or supporting a discrimination claim.” The court said that the supervisor’s acts were “trivial acts,” not “materially adverse.” The court also pointed out that these acts did not dissuade Patterson from filing a claim of discrimination. In fact, she filed multiple complaints with Xerox and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Of course, the court did not excuse or condone the supervisor’s conduct, nor should any employer upon learning that it has occurred.