Claims of unlawful religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 may involve your unwillingness to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices, oral or physical harassment, or unwelcome imposition of religious views or practices on an employee.
A hostile work environment can exist when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, or insults against an employee’s religious beliefs that are sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment. A recent decision from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involves claims of hostile work environment discrimination by an employee repeatedly warned that he would “go to hell” if he didn’t “find God.”
State-by-state comparison of 50 Employment Laws in 50 States, including religious discrimination and accommodations
In March 2003, Zachary Winspear was hired by Community Development, Inc. (CDI), as a personal assistant to Charles Schneider, one of CDI’s owners. Winspear was a strong employee and rose through the organizational ranks quickly. He and Schneider worked collaboratively and over time became well acquainted. Winspear talked about his family, including his brother Logan’s death by suicide four years earlier. The experience had been devastating for Winspear. He and Logan were best friends; the brothers experienced a painfully strict religious upbringing and both rejected organized religion in their adult lives.
Find God or go to hell
In January 2005, CDI hired Schneider’s wife, Lana Sierra, as a receptionist. Sierra was familiar with Winspear’s family history and knew that he had rejected organized religion. A few weeks after she started working at CDI, she took Winspear aside and told him she could communicate with the dead. She claimed to have spoken with Logan and reported that he was “suffering in hell.” She warned Winspear that he, too, would “go to hell” unless he “found God.” Winspear told Sierra she was crazy and asked her not to mention Logan again. The experience was very disturbing for him; he was shaken and tearful.
For the next three weeks, Sierra ignored Winspear’s request; she continued to talk about Logan and her “gifts.” She encouraged Winspear to communicate with the supernatural and “find God.” He was emotionally distraught and forced to relive the trauma of his brother’s tragic death. After several weeks, he finally approached Schneider to complain about his wife. He expected resistance from Schneider but hoped Sierra could be stopped. Instead, Schneider confirmed his wife’s ability to communicate with the dead and asked Winspear to keep her “gift” a secret.
By March, Sierra’s discussions with Winspear were less frequent and she generally didn’t talk about Logan. She did, however, talk about her “gift” and asked Winspear if he’d thought about their earlier discussions. At one point she became frustrated with him, claiming that Logan would continue to “bother her” until Winspear “found God.”
Winspear complained to Schneider a second time. Instead of taking action to stop the conversations entirely, Schneider encouraged him to pay attention to Sierra’s advice. Winspear felt rejected and humiliated after talking to Schneider. He adjusted his work hours and isolated himself while at work to avoid running into Sierra. He experienced difficulties concentrating and completing his work.
Several months later, Winspear got into a heated argument with Sierra about a billing dispute with a chiropractor she had previously worked for. The argument upset him, and he abruptly left the office in the middle of the day. He was asked to return to work because his absence was unauthorized. Instead of returning, he resigned.
District court’s mistake
Winspear filed an administrative claim against his employer and eventually sued CDI, Schneider, and Sierra in federal district court. The complaint alleged religious-based hostile work environment discrimination under Title VII. The court dismissed the claim in CDI’s favor after viewing the matter as a constructive discharge claim, which was never raised by Winspear. In short, the court found that CDI’s conduct didn’t rise to the unendurable level customarily required for constructive discharge claims.
The district court acknowledged that “Winspear may have raised a genuine issue of [significant] fact as to whether Sierra’s repeated comments about Winspear’s brother suffering in Hell and about Winspear needing to find God constituted a hostile work environment.” However, the claim was disregarded because “the four to five month lapse in time between when Sierra allegedly stopped harassing Winspear and when he resigned was fatal to his constructive discharge claim.” Winspear appealed to the Eighth Circuit.
Eighth Circuit judicial panel weighs in
The decision issued by the three-judge panel included a majority opinion written by Judge Michael J. Melloy, a concurring opinion by Judge Pasco M. Bowman, and a dissent authored by Judge Lavenski R. Smith. In the majority opinion, Judge Melloy acknowledged the district court’s legal mistake:
Count One of Winspear’s Complaint against CDI alleges that “Defendant CDI violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 by creating a hostile work environment for [Winspear] on the basis of religion and by failing to take prompt remedial action to correct the hostile work environment.” As a factual basis for this charge, it incorporates the Complaint’s factual allegations, which relate almost exclusively to Sierra’s conduct between January and August 2005. The Complaint itself does not allege constructive discharge — much less contain the words “constructive discharge” — and the only factual allegation in the Complaint related to Winspear’s resignation states, “In August 2004 [he] resigned his employment with CDI.”
Because of the legal mistakes made by the district court, the case was sent back to the lower court with instructions to address the hostile work environment claim.
The concurring and dissenting opinions offer different perspectives and views of the future of the case. Judge Bowman agreed the case must be sent back for consideration under the proper legal standard but questioned whether the facts and circumstances of Winspear’s employment experience would support a hostile work environment claim.
Dissent finds misguided attempt to help, not harassment
The dissent offers the more interesting, and perhaps puzzling, perspective. In his dissent, Judge Smith found a number of reasons to disagree with the majority. First, the alleged harassment was short-lived — the ongoing, repeated conduct occurred over three and a half weeks. After that, it only happened occasionally. Second, he found no evidence that the alleged harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of Winspear’s employment. Lastly, Judge Smith found that the private nature of Winspear’s conversations with Sierra mitigated any potential for harm:
Winspear does not maintain that Sierra’s alleged harassment occurred in front of others in an attempt to ridicule or demean him. In fact, the record demonstrates that Sierra always relayed her comments to Winspear in private and not around other coworkers. Sierra and Schneider even urged Winspear not to tell others about Sierra’s “gift” as a clairvoyant. While understandably offensive, the record reflects the conduct probably resulted from a misguided attempt to help Winspear rather than harass him and negatively impact his job status or job performance.
It’s difficult to understand how the private nature of the conversations makes anything about them less offensive. It cannot be disputed that unlawful workplace harassment often occurs in private, behind closed doors. Viewed in that light, Sierra’s private conversations with Winspear become much more significant than the dissent suggests.
Discussions about supernatural powers, communications with dead family members, and warnings about “going to hell” could reasonably engender fear in even the most reasonable employee. The topics are more suggestive of cult indoctrination than “a misguided attempt to help,” as the dissent suggests. Winspear v. Community Development, Inc., No. 08-2041 (8th Cir., July 29, 2009).
HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination
Recommendations for employers
Employers are responsible for maintaining a nondiscriminatory work environment and are liable for perpetrating or tolerating religious harassment in the workplace. Title VII requires that employees’ sincerely held religious practices and beliefs be accommodated as long as no undue hardship is posed. Because “religion” means different things to different people and Title VII protects all aspects of religious observances and practices and moral and ethical beliefs, respecting the rights of all workers may feel like a balancing act.
A strong antiharassment policy and a simple, effective procedure for reporting, investigating, and correcting harassing conduct may be the best risk management steps you can take. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance about workplace harassment and employer liability. The publication (“EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors“) is available online.
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Excerpted from North Dakota Employment Law Letter and written by attorneys at Vogel Law Firm. NORTH DAKOTA EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general information purposes only. Anyone needing specific legal advice should consult an attorney. For further information about the content of this article, please contact the attorneys at Vogel Law Firm.