Many priests, pastors and ministers have felt they were trapped in a hostile workplace. Many non-church employees that deal with the public have had the same experience. For both the supervisory personnel to whom they answer are rarely the source. Non-church employers may have a duty to intervene between the public and the employee if the conduct of the public is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” Harris v Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 US 17, 21 (1993). Whether the rule would apply to a minister abused by a church member remains to be decided.
In Middleton v United Church of Christ Board, Slip Op. (6th Cir. 2021) the Plaintiff was an employee of the denomination and an ordained minister. The Plaintiff was responsible for planning youth events. The Plaintiff alleged the work environment was rendered toxic by co-workers, supervisors and one or more church donors. The trial court dismissed the case. The United States Court of Appeal for the 6th Circuit affirmed. The Plaintiff’s allegations of abuse that rendered the work environment hostile was an event in 2010, an event in 2013, an event in 2014 and retaliation because Plaintiff complained to the human relations office. The Plaintiff was demoted in 2015 and placed under the supervision of a person of a different race. The Plaintiff was demoted a second time later in 2015 and placed in a temporary position scheduled to end the following year. Still later in 2015, Plaintiff’s two-month sabbatical was abruptly ended after only two weeks. Plaintiff also claimed a promotion was denied and given to a person of a different race instead. The Court of Appeals concluded the church could not be required to prove its employment decisions were not pre-textual. The Court held such an inquiry would require intrusion into church ministerial employment decisions motivated by religious belief and practice. Further, the Court of Appeals held the alleged hostile actions, however unprofessional they may have been if true, fell short of being sufficiently severe to plausibly plead a hostile work environment claim. The denomination likewise had no duty to intervene if the alleged hostile actions did not reach the level of a hostile work environment.
The reported case set the rule for the states in the 6th Circuit that hostile work environment claims for ministers are not available. In that ruling, the 6th Circuit joined every other circuit. The additional holding that the allegations of the Plaintiff alone were not enough to make out a hostile work environment claim are also instructive. Non-clergy employees may still, in some cases, be able to make a hostile work environment claim. However, the alleged abuse must rise to the level of altering the conditions of the claimant’s employment and create an abusive working environment. This will likely require allegations of pervasive, prolonged and seriously abusive behavior to be followed by proof of same.