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Court: Bullying alone isn’t grounds for lawsuit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

A former employee has tried to advance a new legal theory by suing over alleged workplace bullying. His efforts failed and employers won’t have to worry about another new lawsuit flood.

Recent case: Alfred worked as a lecturer in music at City University of New York for almost a decade until his tenure request was rejected.

Alfred sued, claiming that he had earlier filed an internal complaint over workplace bullying and that the tenure denial was retaliation for complaining in the first place.

Nowhere in his lawsuit did he claim that he had been bullied because of his membership in a protected class. For example, he didn’t say the bullying was because of his race, his age or his religion. He simply said he had endured years of poor treatment at the hands of his supervisors and that management had ignored his complaints.

The court first determined whether Alfred could bring a pure “bullying” lawsuit. It concluded he could not.

To allege any sort of harassment, employees have to prove they were harassed on account of their protected characteristic like sex, race and so on. Employees simply aren’t guaranteed a civil workplace or nice supervisors.

Then the court determined that Alfred hadn’t engaged in protected activity either. It said he could not reasonably believe that he was complaining about illegal behavior when he complained about the bullying. Because his belief wasn’t reasonable, he wasn’t protected from retaliation for complaining. The case was dismissed. (Johnson v. City University of New York, No. 14-CV-587, SD NY, 2014)

Final note: Of course, you should discourage bullying in general. It’s unlikely to create a pleasant workplace, increase productivity or keep good employees working for you. You can, if you choose, create a no-bullying rule that encourages civility.

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