The Employer's Legal Resource: Department of Corrections Prevails on Motion as to Discharge Claims but Heads to Trial on Hostile Environment Claim

04.01.17

A recent case brought by a former employee against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) contains both victory and defeat for the employer, drawing attention to ongoing issues involving the racial climate in correctional facilities and law enforcement. Derrick Howard was a corrections officer at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, Oklahoma, from 2010 to 2013. Howard claims he was subjected to a hostile work environment and retaliated against due to his race (black) and his disability (post-traumatic stress disorder). The first two years of Howard's employment were apparently without incident, until things took a turn sometime in 2012.

Howard's primary complaint centers around an incident in which his Captain expressed disdain for a black inmate in front of Howard and other officers, repeatedly calling the inmate "boy." Howard was "embarrassed" by this and felt the Captain's comments were meant to "dehumanize" him. Howard complained to the Chief of Security about the comments, filed two internal grievances with the ODOC, and also filed a complaint with the EEOC in June 2013.

Every year, the ODOC receives from the Oklahoma Tax Commission a list of employees who are non-compliant with state income taxes. Employees who are non-compliant for three years or more are referred to ODOC human resources for further action. Howard had a plan set up to repay his back taxes, but he stopped making payments in May 2013. A notice containing a list of non-compliant employees, including Howard, was sent to the ODOC in July 2013. Shortly thereafter, Howard took a medical leave of absence (in connection with his PTSD diagnosis and treatment at a substance abuse clinic). Howard did not return to work and exhausted his medical leave. After he failed to appear at a pre-termination hearing in November, he was terminated in December 2013 because of his failure to pay taxes.

After his termination, Howard filed a lawsuit in Cleveland County state court for discrimination and retaliation due to his race, retaliation, and disability. The ODOC removed the action to federal court and sought summary judgment.

The court granted summary judgment for the ODOC on the ADA claims because Howard provided no evidence he was discriminated against because of his disability. The court stated: "[a]lthough Defendants may have acted callously toward Howard during this time, mere threats, indignities, annoyances, petty oppressions and other callous and insensitive conduct are not actionable under the federal anti-discrimination laws."

Howard's claim that he was retaliated against for filing a Charge of Discrimination also failed for two reasons: (1) the six months between his June 2013 EEOC complaint and his December 2013 termination was too long a time gap to be considered evidence of retaliatory motive by the ODOC; and (2) the decision to terminate Howard was based on his failure to pay state taxes, an event triggered by the Oklahoma Tax Commission, not the ODOC.

Howard's racial discrimination claim similarly failed. He presented evidence that he was treated differently than other employees (in that some other employees were deemed non-compliant regarding payment of taxes three or more times but remained employed by the ODOC). But he did not identify the races of the other employees and failed to show that "an unlawful motive explains the difference in treatment." Thus, he failed to show that the ODOC's stated reason for his termination (failure to pay taxes) was pretext for race discrimination and summary judgment was granted against him on that claim.

Although his other claims failed, Howard's claims for hostile work environment based on his race survived, however. The hostile work environment claim required Howard to show that the alleged harassment was so severe and/or pervasive that it altered a term, condition, or privilege of his employment and created an abusive working environment. The court noted that "the severity and pervasiveness evaluation is particularly unsuited for summary judgment because it is inherently fact-bound by nature." In this case, the jury must be permitted to analyze a "realistic picture of the work environment" on the whole, by considering the totality of the circumstances "informed by the sum total" of all incidents, rather than "by viewing each incident in isolation, as if nothing else had occurred." Howard had provided enough evidence for the hostile work environment claim to go to a jury on that issue.

By Rebecca D. Bullard, RBullard@dsda.com

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Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca represents clients primarily in labor and employment litigation and counsels clients regarding everyday employment matters. 

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