(1) Joseph Alonso sued his employer, Qwest Communications Company LLC, and his supervisor, Ben Martinez, for discrimination [based on his combat veteran, disabled person, and Mexican-American statuses.]
(2) [T]he superior court granted Qwest summary judgment dismissal of Alonso’s complaint.
(3) Alonso appeals, arguing that he provided sufficient evidence to establish prima facie discrimination claims for (1) disparate treatment, (2) hostile work environment, and (3) unlawful retaliation.
(4) [The Court held] that Alonso established prima facie disparate treatment and hostile work environment claims [and reversed] the superior court’s summary judgment dismissal on those matters.
(5) [The Court held] that Alonso failed to establish a prima facie retaliation case … [and affirmed] the superior court’s summary judgment dismissal of that claim.
-Alonso v. Qwest Communications Company, LLC, 178 Wn.App 734 (Div. 2 2013)
ISSUE #1: Did Alonso sufficiently establish a prima facie disparate treatment case under the direct evidence test?
Disparate Treatment: “Disparate treatment is a form of discrimination that occurs when an employer treats some people less favorably than others because of race, color, religion, sex, or other protected status.” Id. at 744. (citing Hegwine v. Longview Fibre Co., 162 Wn.2d 340, 354 n.7, 172 P.3d 688 (2007)). “To establish a prima facie disparate treatment claim, the employee-plaintiff must show that the employer treats some people less favorably than others because of their protected status.” Id. (citing Johnson v. Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs., 80 Wn.App. 212, 226, 907 P.2d 1223 (1996)).
Two Options: “A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case by either offering direct evidence of an employer’s discriminatory intent, or by satisfying the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test that gives rise to an inference of discrimination.” Id. (citing Kastanis v. Educ. Emps. Credit Union, 122 Wn.2d 483, 491, 859 P.2d 26, 865 P.2d 507 (1993).
Direct Evidence Test: “[A] plaintiff can establish a prima facie case by providing direct evidence that (1) the defendant employer acted with a discriminatory motive and (2) the discriminatory motivation was a significant or substantial factor in an employment decision.” Id. (citing Kastanis, 122 Wn.2d at 491). “An adverse employment action involves a change in employment conditions that is more than an inconvenience or alteration of one’s job responsibilities, such as reducing an employee’s workload and pay.” Id. at 746. Lastly, “A demotion or adverse transfer, or a hostile work environment, may also amount to an adverse employment action.” Id.
Discriminatory Remarks: The Court “generally consider[s] an employer’s discriminatory remarks to be direct evidence of discrimination.” Id. (referencing Johnson v. Express Rent & Own, Inc., 113 Wn.App. 858, 862-63, 56 P.3d 567 (2002)).
(1) Discriminatory Motive: The Court evaluated the case under the first prong of the Direct Evidence Test–that the employer acted with discriminatory motive–and held that “the evidence sufficiently proved that Martinez acted with discriminatory motive toward Alonso.” Id. at 745. In this case, “Martinez openly stated that he hated disabled Gulf War combat veterans and specifically that he hated that Alonso was disabled and receiving disability pay”; “[A]lonso produced evidence that Martinez referred to Mexicans as ‘Spics’ and allowed others to use the term”; “[e]mployees including Martinez openly mocked Alonso’s speech impediment and accent”; “described his speech as that of a ‘ghetto Hispanic'”; and “contrasted themselves to Alonso because they ‘spoke correct English’ unlike him”.
(2) Significant/Substantial Factor in Employment Decision: In the case, Alonso claimed that he suffered adverse action through both adverse transfer and hostile work environment.
Initially, Alonso claimed that he experienced an adverse transfer causing him to loose certain benefits including a newer van, cellular phone, and other preferences regarding equipment. The Court raised and dismissed the rule in O’Neal v. City of Chicago, 392 F.3d 909, 912 (7th Cir. 2004), essentially establishing that loss of benefits do not amount to an adverse employment action when those benefits were associated with the position from which the plaintiff transferred. See id at 746. The Court viewed the evidence in a light most favorable to Alonso and held that his “benefits” were not tied to the position from which he transferred, and, thus, a reasonable juror could conclude that he suffered an adverse employment action when he transferred from his original position and was forced to give up those “benefits.”
Next, Alonso further argued that he experienced adverse action in that he “suffered from a negative employment decision–being subjected to an increasingly hostile work environment as the subject of harassment targeting his protected statuses.” Id at 747. Accordingly, the Court considered derogatory comments made by Martinez and other employees as described above in section “(1) Discriminatory Motive”; and it also considered an additional comment allegedly made by Martinez regarding Alonso’s veteran status and PTSD — “[A]re you crazy or something?” and “[D]id you know Vietnam was over in 1978?” Id. at 748.
The Court held that “Alonso sufficiently established a prima facie disparate treatment case under the direct evidence test.” Id at 748. It further held that “Alonso produced direct evidence of (1) Martinez’s discriminatory motive–his hatred toward Alonso as a disabled Gulf Way veteran with a speech impediment and (2) how he suffered adverse employment decisions–loss of his newer van and cell phone, and an increasingly hostile work environment laden with bullying and mockery of his Mexican-American heritage and disabilities.” Id. Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of his disparate treatment claim.
ISSUE #2: Did Alonso establish a prima facie hostile work environment claim?
Hostile Work Environment: “To establish a prima facie hostile work environment claim, the plaintiff must alleged facts proving that (1) the harassment was unwelcome, (2) the harassment was because the plaintiff was a member of a protected class, (3) the harassment affected the terms and conditions of employment, and (4) the harassment is imputable to the employer.” Id. at 749 (citing Loeffelholz v. Univ. of Wash., 175 Wn.2d 264, 275, 285 P.3d 854 (2012)). “Harassment is actionable only if it is sufficiently pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment.” Id. (citing Antonius v. King County, 153 Wn.2d 256, 261, 103 P.3d 729 (2004)).
Harassment Because of Protected Class (2nd Element): To establish the 2nd element of a hostile work environment claim–that the harassment was because the plaintiff was a member of a protected class–“a plaintiff need only produce evidence that supports a reasonable inference that his protected class status was the motivating factor for the harassing conduct.” Id. at 749 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
Harassment Affected Terms & Conditions (3rd Element): “To determine whether conduct was severe or pervasive enough to affect the terms and conditions of employment, [… courts] look at the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency and severity of harassing conduct, whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, or merely an offensive utterance, and whether it unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance.” Id. at 751 (citing Washington v. Boeing Co., 105 Wn.App. 1, 10, 119 P.3d 1041 (2000)). “Whether offensive comments affect the conditions of employment is a factual question.” Id. (referencing Davis v. W. One Auto. Grp., 140 Wn.App. 449, 457, 166 P.3d 807 (2007) reveiew denied, 163 Wn.2d 1040 (2008)). However, “casual, isolated, or trivial manifestations of a discriminatory environment do not affect the terms or conditions of employment to a sufficiently significant degree to violate the law.” Id. (citing Washington, 105 Wn.App. at 10.)
Harassment Imputable to Employer (4th Element): “Harassment is imputed to an employer when an owner, manager, partner, or corporate officer personally participates in the harassment.” Id. at 754 (citing Glasgow v. Ga.-Pac. Corp., 103 Wn.2d 401, 407, 693 P.2d 708 (1985)). “Managers are those whom the employer has given authority and power to affect the hours, wages, and working conditions of the employer’s workers. Id. (citing Robel v. Roundup Corp., 148 Wn.2d 35, 48 n.5, 59 P.3d 611 (2002)).
(1) Unwelcome: In this case, the Court found that it was undisputed between the parties that Alonso did not welcome any hostility or harassment.
(2) Harassment Because of Protected Class: The Court considered Alonso’s offered evidence regarding military status — Martinez expressed hatred that Alonso was a disabled Gulf War combat vet and he compared his vet status to Alonso’s; regarding race — Martinez and others subjected Alonso to racially derogatory language (established above); and regarding disability — he was a victim of open mocking for his speech impediment (established above). Accordingly, the Court held that Alonso satisfied this element in establishing a prima facie hostile work environment claim.
(3) Harassment Affected Terms & Conditions: The Court considered the evidence referenced under element 2 above, and also considered that “Alonso visited a psychiatric emergency room in response to the ‘great stress at work’ and an upsurge in PTSD symptoms.” Id. at 752. The Court then held that Alonso “sufficiently demonstrated that the alleged harassment affected the terms and conditions of his employment.” Id.
(4) Harassment Imputable to Employer: The Court found that Alonso’s supervisor, Martinez, set his crew’s hours, managed how employees were to spend their time on projects, controlled overtime, and controlled placement on out-of-town projects. Accordingly, the Court determined that Martinez qualified as a manager for purposes of summary judgment, because he had authority to affect employee’s hours, wages (via delegating overtime) and working conditions. The Court then found that Martinez participated in some of the harassment as described above. Ultimately, the Court held that Alonso established that the harassment is imputable to the employer through supervisor Martinez.
The Court held both that Alonso established a prima facie hostile work environment claim and that the superior court erred in granting Qwest’s summary judgment motion on this issue. Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of his hostile work environment claim.
ISSUE #3: Did the superior court err in dismissing Alonso’s retaliation claim?
“The WLAD prohibits retaliation against a party asserting a claim based on a perceived violation of his civil rights or participating in an investigation into alleged workplace discrimination.” Id. at 753 (citing RCW 49.60.210). “To establish a prima facie retaliation case, a plaintiff must show that (1) he engaged in statutorily protected activity, (2) his employer took an adverse employment action against him, and (3) there is a causal link between the activity and the adverse action.” Id. at 753-54 (citing Short v. Battle Ground Sch. Dist., 169 Wn.App. 188, 205, 279 P.3d 902 (2012)).
“An employee engages in WLAD-protected activity when he opposes employment practices forbidden by antidiscrimination law or other practices that the employee reasonably believed to be discriminatory.” Id. at 754 (citing Short, 169 Wn.App. at 205). “A general complaint about an employer’s unfair conduct does not rise to the level of protected activity in a discrimination action under WLAD absent some reference to the plaintiff’s protected status.” Id. (referencing Graves v. Dep’t of Game, 76 Wn.App. 705, 712, 887 P.2d 424 (1994)).
The Court initially evaluated whether Alonso met the first element of an unlawful retaliation claim — that he participated in protected activity. Here, Alonso used a company hotline to make a general complaint about corruption, mistreatment, and vulgar language against both his supervisor (Martinez) and another employee. Id. at 754. However, Alonso “did not express that his complaints were in response to harassment based on any protected status.” Id. Thus, the Court held that Alonso did not establish the first element, because he did not phone the hotline to report discrimination against him based on a protected class. Id.
The Court held that Alonso failed to sufficiently establish a prima facie retaliation case because he did not demonstrate that he engaged in statutorily protected activity. Therefore, the Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of his unlawful retaliation claim.
NOTABLES AND IMPLICATIONS
- ADVERSER TRANSFER
[~1] Transfer to a position with the same work for the same pay and within the same union contract classification can still be considered an adverse transfer if the former position came with some benefits (e.g., newer vehicle, cellular phone, preference in employer-supplied workstations, computers, desk telephones, etc.) that the new position does not provide. See Id. at 746.
- HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT (PROTECTED CLASS)
[~2] Just two comments may be enough to support a reasonable inference that an employee’s protected class status was the motivating factor harassing conduct. See Id. at 749-50 (supervisor openly expressed he hated that plaintiff was a disabled Gulf Way combat veteran and compared his own veteran status to plaintiff’s).
- HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT (TERMS AND CONDITIONS)
[~3] An “employee’s alleged humiliation and self-diagnosed mental sickness from ‘racially charged’ workplace comments raised an inference that condition resulted from hostile work environment.” Id. at 751 (referencing Davis v. W. One Auto. Grp., 140 Wn.App. 449, 457, 166 P.3d 807 (2007), review denied, 163 Wn.2d 1040 (2008) (emphasis added).
- HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT (IMPUTABLE TO EMPLOYER)
[~4] A supervisor/manager may have authority to affect an employee’s wages if the supervisor/manager had the ability to determine who could earn overtime. See Id. at 752 (referencing Robel v. Roundup Corp., 148 Wn.2d 35, 48 n. 5, 59 P.3d 611 (2002)).
- TITLE VII FOR GUIDANCE
[~5] “Because our discrimination laws substantially parallel Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e to 2000e-17, [courts …] may look to federal law for guidance.” Id. at 755, fn. 10 (citing Phanna K. Xieng v. Peoples Nat’l Bank of Wash., 120 Wn.2d 512, 518, 844 P.2d 389 (1993)).
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