Being Placed on a Performance Improvement Plan Does Not Entitle Employee to Sue

Despite the enormous amount of employment litigation in our courts, a recent Federal Appeals Court decision reminds us that not every negative interaction at work gives an employee the keys to the court room.

High school teacher Guadalupe A. Welsh sued the Fort Bend Independent School District in federal court for age, national origin and sex discrimination because of the following incidents:

→ She was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that she successfully completed within one month;

→ She requested but never received a recommendation letter from the principal; and

→ She felt humiliated by a remark made in front of other faculty members by an assistant principal which Welsh felt criticized her work ethic.

After the lower court summarily dismissed her case before trial, Welsh appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Teacher Gets Schooled on Adverse Action

The Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal, explaining first that employees claiming unlawful discrimination bear an initial burden of proving, among other things, that they suffered an adverse employment action.  Adverse employment actions are limited to “ultimate employment decisions such as hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting, or compensating.”

While reprimands could constitute “adverse action” under the right circumstances, the Court ruled that Welsh was not actually reprimanded; she merely was placed on a regimen designed to help her overcome her shortcomings as a teacher. She suffered no loss of pay, benefits or job responsibilities, and her claim that the PIP hindered promotional opportunities was unsupported by any evidence of actual impact on a particular promotion that she sought.

Other Claims Don’t Make the Grade

The Court ruled similarly with respect to Welsh’s other two allegations.  The failure to receive a letter of recommendation was not adverse action because (a) Welsh failed to prove that the action was intentional and not a mere oversight; and (b) she could not demonstrate any particular promotional opportunity that was denied to her because of the absence of a recommendation letter.

As for the critical remark by the assistant principal, the Court reminded us that Title VII is not a “general civility code for the workplace” and that not all hurtful remarks or difficult interactions are actionable.  In this instance, they concluded that the comment was simply “an unpleasant workplace experience, not an adverse employment action.”

Welsh also sued for retaliation based on the same incidents, and while such claims are subject to a slightly lower threshold of the initial showing of proof, the Court affirmed the dismissal of this claim as well because Welsh failed to show a causal connection between her complaints about alleged discrimination and any alleged retaliatory behavior.

Bottom Line

Employees can be quick to claim discrimination.  It is good to know that the courts continue to maintain a careful watch over which claims get into the courtroom and which just simply should be barred at the door.