Monday, April 7, 2008

Court reminds us that harassment must be because of a protected class to be actionable

Williams v. Spitzer Auto World, Inc., decided this week by the Lorain County, Ohio, Court of Appeals, is a great illustration of the dangers the will befall corporate America if workplace bullying legislation becomes the law.

Michael Williams, an African-American, quit his job at Spitzer (it's been a busy couple of weeks for Spitzer) and alleged, among other things, racial discrimination, racial harassment, and constructive discharge. The jury found in favor of Spitzer on the harassment claim, but nevertheless awarded Williams damages on his constructive discharge claim. A constructive discharge is where "the employer's actions made working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person under the circumstances would have felt compelled to resign." The intolerable working conditions, however, must be tied to some unlawful conduct by the employer for an employee to claim a constructive discharge. Because Williams had not proved his harassment claim, the appellate court ruled that his constructive discharge claim must therefore also fail.

This case is a perfect illustration of what's wrong with the anti-bullying movement. If groups like the Workplace Bullying Institute get their way and generalized workplace bullying becomes illegal, every employee who quits a job because of an alleged abusive boss will have a colorable constructive discharge claim. The violation of the anti-bullying law would provide the unlawful conduct necessary to support the constructive discharge claim. It is for this very reason that anti-bullying legislation would spell the end of employment at-will, as every employee who resigns because they don't like their boss would be able to claim a constructive discharge.