Court Finds Hostile Work Environment Claims against Collection Agency Past Due, Insufficient Funds

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CBE’s old, but well known, logo.

If you live in our great state, you may have heard of CBE – Credit Bureau Enterprises, Inc., a “leading” (according to them) collection agency headquartered in the state of Iowa.

It’s probably tough to work at a collection agency.  Rachel Clay, an African-american woman who started at CBE in 2005 as a front line collector, claimed it was not only tough, but illegally hostile.  In fact, Ms. Clay filed a lawsuit against CBE on March 1, 2011, claiming race discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, and constructive discharge.  (This was after she had resigned from CBE for personal reasons on February 5, 2008).

In support of her hostile work environment claim, Clay cited the typical laundry list of horribles, including twelve that were timely (more about that below):

• On March 12, 2007, [her] Supervisor … said that she would deny Clay’s request to make up time unless Clay completed a form that white employees had not been required to complete.
• On March 15, 2007, [her] Manager … disciplined Clay for a dress code violation. Similarly dressed white employees were not disciplined.
• At the end of March 2007, Clay complained to [her Supervisor] that her white co-workers received praise for their performance but Clay did not receive similar praise.
• On April 6, 2007, [her Supervisor] improperly altered Clay’s time log to reflect that Clay had returned late from lunch.
• In late April 2007, a co-worker told Clay, “Congratulations! Today is the day Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You should be happy.” [Her Manager] overheard the comment but took no action.
. . . and so on

While the details range from the benign to asinine, the trial court noted that CBE had recorded no discipline against Clay for any of these incidents.

Complaints Past Due

Above were some of the timely brought complaints.  The trial court noted that Clay had brought a number of her grievances too late, because they were outside of the applicable four-year statute of limitations.  Included were incidences where Clay alleged her white co-workers and supervisors made derogatory comments to her and other African-american employees, including:

(1) . . . in May 2006, [a] Supervisor . . . called [an] African-American Supervisor . . . a “black bitch” during an argument; (2) that [a] Supervisor . . . once told [an African-American Supervisor] to “let up on the white girls”; (3) that [a] Supervisor . . . overheard Clay’s co-worker call her a “black bitch” during a dispute, but did not report it; (4) that a Supervisor . . . referred to Clay’s hair as “nappy”; and (5) that [Clay] had knowledge that Supervisors . . . commented that “black people had nappy hair,” “black people live in the hood,” and “black people get food stamps.”

Even considering this complaints as timely, the trial court found Clay could not sustain a claim against CBE because they simply were not sufficient evidence of a hostile work environment. 

Court Finds all Plaintiff’s Claims Have Insufficient Fundsnsf-cheque

In this Friday, June 6, decision, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the reasoning of the trial court.  Specifically, the Court recited the well-known precept that the Plaintiff was obligated to demonstrate the harassment affected a “term, condition, or privilege of employment.”  To do so, the harassment must have been sufficiently “severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”

The Court found, simply, that Clay had insufficient proof.  As to the twelve incidents that occurred within the required timeframe, they were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to show that Clay’s work environment was offensive.  In the words of the Circuit Judges, they were “infrequent and involved low levels of severity.”

Further, Clay did not allege the environment was physically threatening, nor that the conduct was humiliating or interfered with her work.

Finally, the Court noted Clay did not support the allegations with sufficient evidence, and instead relied mostly on speculation and conjecture to show that the alleged harassment was race based.


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