Not Every Workplace Wrong Is Remediable Under Title VII

By:  Carrie S. Bryant



In Watts v. Lyon County Ambulance Service, et al., No. 14-5761 (6th Cir. Jan. 20, 2015) (unpublished), the Sixth Circuit dismissed the Plaintiff’s discrimination and tortious interference claims, and affirmed that a plaintiff must do more than simply allege a workplace harm.  In order to sustain a claim, the harm must be actionable under the law.

Plaintiff, Kenneth Watts, was employed as Executive Director of the Lyon County Ambulance Service.  He was terminated in 2011.  The Ambulance Service argued that Watts was terminated due to a history of performance issues and for failing to follow
directives.  Watts alleged that an Ambulance Service board member, Rod Murphy, solicited two former employees to make false sexual harassment claims against Watts in an effort to get him terminated.  According to Watts, Murphy was friends with an employee of the company the Ambulance Service used for it billing services, and Murphy was upset with Watts for pointing out billing inefficiencies by the billing company.
Watts believed that Murphy attempted to solicit the false complaints in order to protect the relationship between the Ambulance Service and the billing company.

Watts filed suit in the district court against the Ambulance Service and its board members.  Watts alleged that the Defendants violated Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination.  According to Watts, the Ambulance Service terminated him based on his gender, and the discrimination created a hostile work environment.  In addition, Murphy
tortiously interfered with Watts’s contract with the Ambulance Service.  Defendants moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted their motion.  Watts appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit found that Watts could not simply recover under Title VII because the statute prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and he “happens to have a gender.”  Watts still needed to establish that the Defendants took an adverse action against him because of his sex.  He failed to do so.  Based on Watts’s own theory of the case, he was fired because Murphy wanted to protect the relationship he had with his friend at the billing company.  In other words, based on Watts’s own argument, he was not terminated because of his sex.  Further, to the extent that Watts was attempting to argue that he would not have been subjected to false sexual harassment claims but for his gender, that claim also failed.  Watts did not establish that Murphy specifically chose to solicit false sexual harassment claims against Watts because of his sex, as opposed to soliciting the false claims for the purpose of getting him removed from his director position.

The Sixth Circuit also ruled that the district court properly entered summary judgment on Watts’s state law tortious interference claim, which required a showing that Murphy’s actions caused a breach of contract.  Watts was not only unable to identify a contract between him and the Ambulance Service, but he also presented no evidence to establish that anyone complained to the board of directors about any sexual harassment by Watts.  Therefore, even if Murphy had tried to solicit the false statements in order to get Watts
fired, there was no evidence in the record that Murphy was successful in this regard.

This case serves as a good reminder that not every perceived act of mistreatment rises to the level of illegality.  In addition, Plaintiffs must do more than make conclusory allegations without support for their discrimination claims.  Nonetheless, employers must remain mindful that employment actions, including terminations, should be reviewed to ensure that they are legitimate, non-discriminatory actions, and consistent with the employer’s employment practices.

This article was written by Carrie S. Bryant who is a member of the Legal Affairs Committee and an Attorney of the law firm of Dykema Gossett PLLC, located in its Bloomfield Hills, MI office.  She can be reached at (248) 203-0728 or January 2015.