Minor Acts Are Not Sufficient to Support a Discrimination or Harassment Claim
In order to sustain a claim of race discrimination under Title VII, a plaintiff must allege that they were subjected to an adverse employment action – but minor changes or actions do not constitute such actions. Similarly, such actions do not constitute illegal workplace harassment unless they affect the terms, conditions or privileges of employment.
In Watson v. McDonough, the employee sued for race discrimination and hostile workplace harassment based on a litany of concerns, including the failure to regrade her position, inadequate training for new duties, assignment of additional duties, her performance review, and written counseling. The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer, finding these claims had no merit.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling. It agreed that the actions identified by the employee did not rise to the level of adverse employment actions for purposes of Title VII. And these same actions were not sufficient to create a hostile work environment, as they were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to materially alter the conditions of her employment.
This case therefore affirms that minor changes to an employee’s duties or responsibilities, in and of themselves, cannot be considered adverse employment actions for purposes of sustaining a race discrimination claim or workplace harassment claim, unless they lead to actions with more tangible economic consequences – such as loss of pay, demotion, or termination. But as discussed elsewhere in this E-Update, such minor concerns could, in fact, support a claim of retaliatory harassment – so employers should be careful not to dismiss these concerns too quickly if an employee has made a claim of discrimination or harassment prior to raising concerns about these types of actions.