On July 28, 2010, New Jersey’s Appellate Division ruled that a former employee of the Atlantic City Board of Education could proceed with his lawsuit. Even though the decision in Clarke v. Atlantic City Board of Education is not a legally binding precedent, it is noteworthy because it recognizes that a few relatively minor discriminatory actions potentially can be enough to prove a harassment claim.
The case was filed by Melvin Clarke, who had been an Assistant Superintendent for the Board of Education. He has a disability which limits his ability to walk, and as a result uses a power scooter and a cane. In February 2002, he filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against the Board and two of its employees. As part of a settlement of that case, the Board agreed to give Mr. Clarke a raise of $5,000 per year, and guaranteed his annual salary would remain at least $5,000 higher than the other Assistant Superintendents in the School District.
In June 2006, Mr. Clarke sued the Board again, this time alleging both retaliation and disability discrimination. The trial court dismissed his claim, finding he did not allege an “adverse employment action.” To win in an employment discrimination case, an employee must show he suffered an adverse employment action, such as being fired or demoted because of his or her age, race, gender, disability, or another legally protected category.
As the Appellate Division explained, an adverse employment action has to be serious enough to alter the employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, deprived the employee of future job opportunities, or had another significant negative effect on his or her job. Examples include being fired, demoted, suspended, passed over for a promotion, forced to resign, or harassed. Harassment is when a company subjects an employee to many separate but relatively minor actions, each of which might not be actionable on its own, but when combined, make up a pattern of discrimination or retaliation conduct.
The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision because it found Mr. Clarke’s allegations, if true, could establish a hostile work environment harassment claim. His relevant allegations included the fact that the Board (1) moved his office to the sixth floor of the building and further from a bathroom, even though he has difficulty walking, and did not relocate his office after he was stranded on the sixth floor during a fire alarm; (2) refused to develop a plan to provide reasonable accommodations for his disability; and (3) violated his settlement agreement by failing to keep his salary at least $5,000 more than the other Assistant Superintendents. Since the appellate court found Mr. Clarke’s allegations could be enough to prove a harassment claim, it sent his case back to the trial court to give him a chance to prove his case.
The question of whether a particular situation is bad enough to be a legally actionable harassment is very fact specific. It depends on factors such has how frequently the harassment happens, how severe the harassment is, and who is committing the harassment.