Three doctors and an administrative assistant at a Florida hospital sued, claiming the institution maintained a retaliatory hostile work environment on the basis of the fact that two of the doctors had lodged equal employment opportunity complaints of gender and religious discrimination. What they described sounded like a very intimidating environment.
What happened. Two female doctors, “Gordon” and “Zachary,” worked at the Bay Pines Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center, Zachary from 1989 on and Gordon from 1997. Gordon filed her Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint in October 2005 and later alleged the retaliation began immediately.
Four administrators—the chief hospitalist, chief of medicine services, chief of staff, and director—cooperated with one another to change her duty assignments; remove her committee chair positions and take her off most committees; deny her privileges; reprimand, counsel, and suspend her; solicit complaints about her; lower her proficiency reports; charge her $18,000 for an alleged debt incurred 8 years earlier; and more.
Zachary filed EEO complaints in June 2005 and April 2006 and told tales of retaliation similar to Gordon’s. The two sued the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in August 2007 and were joined by a third doctor and an administrative assistant.
In court, witnesses corroborated their accounts: Everyone was aware of the atmosphere, and many doctors had quit during 2006 and 2007. In federal district court, a jury concluded that the hospital would have made the same decisions about Gordon and Zachary without retaliatory motives. But they found there was a retaliatory hostile environment and awarded damages to both for emotional distress and back wages. The VA appealed to the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
What the court said. Appellate judges noted that they had not previously recognized a charge of retaliatory hostile environment. They did so here, joining with all other circuits except the 5th (LA, MS, TX) and the federal. So they upheld the jury’s overall verdict, but ruled against the back pay awards by finding the doctors had not been constructively discharged. And, on the basis of an argument that the hospital had a “mixed motive” for retaliation, they ruled against orders the jury had asked be given to the hospital regarding Gordon and Zachary’s personnel files and work conditions. Gowski and Zachariah v. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, No. 09-16371 (2012).
Point to remember: Since retaliation is easier to prove in court than discrimination, we think hospital administrators should have known better.