Co-worker conflict is not harassment

By Susan G. Fentin

Published in the SHRM Court Report

Tammy Powell alleged that her employer, Yellow Book USA, was liable for sexual and
religious harassment and retaliation, as well as assault and battery. She based her claims
on her treatment by a co-worker who sat next to her in the office, Victoria Kreutz. The
trial court concluded that Powell did not have enough evidence to take her case to trial.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, ruling that her conflict with a coworker
was not enough to support her claims of discrimination against her employer.

Powell claimed that Kreutz propositioned her and described sexual activity and fantasies
about other co-workers. The appeals court found Powell’s allegations insufficiently
severe and pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of her employment. The court
noted that “Title VII’s purpose is not to smooth the rough edges of our daily discourse,
nor to provide a federal cause of action for every slight.” Kreutz did not retaliate against
Powell for turning down the alleged proposition, and although the “ribald nature” of
Yellow Book’s office environment might not have been good manners, it was not enough
to support a claim of sexual harassment.

Similarly, the court found little support for Powell’s claim of religious harassment.
Apparently, Kreutz became “born again” after Powell moved to the next desk and began
to discuss her religious conversion with Powell. Eventually, Powell complained to
Yellow Book’s manager of corporate employer relations, who met with Kreutz and told
her that she was forbidden to discuss religious matters with Powell, either in person or
through email. Powell also complained about “religious sayings” posted at Kreutz’s desk, but Yellow Book reviewed these, found they did not violate company policy, and did not make Kreutz take them down.

Powell wasn’t satisfied, however, and continued to complain about religious
“harassment.” She complained to Yellow Book management eight times in the next two months, and each time, Yellow Book verified with Kreutz and Powell that no conversation or email messages were being exchanged about religion. When Powell continued to be distressed by the religious messages in Kreutz’s cubicle, Yellow Book moved her desk. The appeals court concluded that Yellow Book’s actions were prompt
and proper and that the employer had no legal obligation to remove religious expression merely because it annoyed one employee. In addition, the court found that the alleged
religious harassment was insufficiently severe and pervasive to support the claim.

Powell eventually filed a charge of religious harassment with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and claimed that written reprimands she received after this filing were in
retaliation for her complaint. Since the reprimands did not result in tangible change in her
duties or working conditions, however, they could not be considered retaliation. The
appeals court noted that formal criticisms that do not lead to a change in compensation
responsibilities or other benefits are not adverse employment actions under Title VII, and it dismissed Powell’s claim for retaliation.

Finally, in the most bizarre set of allegations, Powell claimed that Yellow Book and
Kreutz were liable because Kreutz had allegedly spiked her Diet Pepsi with
methamphetamines. As with Powell’s other claims there was not enough evidence to
prove that Kreutz had tampered with Powell’s drink, and the court dismissed that claim as well.

Powell v. Yellow Book USA, Inc., 8th Cir., No. 05-2465 (Apr. 25, 2006).

Professional Pointer: Yellow Book gets high marks for its treatment of Powell’s
allegations here, and the company’s prompt attention to her complaints probably saved it from trial. When an employee complains about harassment of any sort, whether sexual,
religious, or otherwise, the employer must immediately investigate and take whatever
steps are necessary to bring the perceived harassment to a halt. Even though Yellow
Book did not require Kreutz to take down her religious messages, it did everything it
could to ensure that Kreutz did not communicate her religious beliefs to Powell, and
indeed those communications stopped.

Susan G. Fentin is a partner in the Massachusetts law firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser,
P.C., an affiliate of Worklaw® Network.

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice