Not All Actions Trigger EEO Rights

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Office of Federal Operation (OFO), in Lyle v. General Services (No. 0120131779, June 20, 2013), upheld the dismissal of Lyle's EEO complaint for failure to state a claim. Lyle, who worked as a telecommunications specialist for GSA, claimed that the agency discriminated against her and subjected her to harassment based on her color (white) and reprisal (EEO activity) when she was not invited to a retirement lunch and when she received "negative comments regarding providing customer service."

The OFO upheld the agency's finding that these two events did not cause Lyle "direct harm to a term, condition, or privilege of employment for which there is a remedy" and that the negative comments were "an isolated remark, which was not sufficiently severe or pervasive as to create a hostile work environment." The OFO also analyzed the discrimination claim under the anti-retaliation provisions of the discrimination laws, still noting that, to state a claim of reprisal, "the harm must be materially adverse so that it is reasonably likely to dissuade 'a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.'" The OFO noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically ruled that not being invited to lunch is a "trivial, nonactionable petty slight."

Lyle tried to rehabilitate her case by arguing that the lunch exclusion caused her "emotional harm" and that she "suffered distress and emotional turmoil" from the negative comments about her customer service. The OFO would have none of it, holding that Lyle did not suffer a materially adverse harm by not being invited to lunch, and that even when analyzed under the broader retaliation standard, there was nothing about being excluded from lunch or receiving one set of negative comments (not part of a performance evaluation) to deter a reasonable employee from bringing an EEO claim.

Finally, the OFO reiterated that a complainant could not convert a non-actionable complaint into a viable EEO claim just by seeking compensatory damages. The underlying claim must satisfy minimum legal standards of stating a cause of action for workplace discrimination.

This case is a good reminder that not every workplace slight rises to the level of an EEO case, and that even if a federal employee suffers distress or emotional harm from workplace slights, she does not necessarily have an actionable underlying claim of workplace discrimination.