January 1995

Workplace Labor Update - Navy Cleared of Harassment Claim – January 1995

3 min

The federal court of appeals with jurisdiction over Maryland recently ruled that the Navy did not racially harass an African-American intelligence analyst, or force him to resign because of his race. Carter v. Ball, 33 F.3d 450 (4th Cir. 1994).

Carter enlisted in the Navy in 1967 as an intelligence analyst, and in April 1988 applied for the position of a Supervisory Intelligence Research Specialist. Carter was denied the promotion because his application lacked the detail and thoroughness to warrant the promotion. A white applicant was selected. Consequently, Carter brought a complaint to an internal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor claiming that he was denied the promotion due to age and race. The EEO officer found no discrimination in the denial of the promotion.

In 1989, Carter’s new supervisor began assigning work directly to a subordinate of Carter’s rather than through Carter. He also publicly reprimanded Carter, even though others received private reprimands. Furthermore, the new supervisor prominently hung a poster containing a picture of a gorilla, and the statement, “I wouldn’t mind being a NOBODY if I could only GET A LITTLE RECOGNITION once in awhile.” Carter considered this a derogatory reference to African-Americans.

In November of 1989, Carter was put on 90 days probation for poor performance. Because Carter’s performance did not improve during the 90-day probationary period, the Navy downgraded Carter’s status and he subsequently retired.

Carter filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination in promotion and harassment, constructive discharge, and retaliation for filing his previous EEO complaint. The trial court dismissed Carter’s lawsuit and Carter appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit.

In affirming, the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Navy adequately demonstrated Carter was not promoted because he had lower qualifications for the position, received a lower ranking and had submitted less complete information in his application. The court also noted that Carter had presented no evidence that discrimination played any role in his ranking or the application process.

The court also rejected Carter’s claim that he was forced to retire due to the hostile atmosphere at the office. The Navy proved that it was Carter’s inadequate performance – his failure to complete his assignments on time and inability to perform tasks without substantial help from others – that led to his demotion. Moreover, the court explained, Carter’s resignation could not be considered tantamount to a discharge where the stress and problems that he faced were not “so intolerable as to create a reasonable person to resign,” especially in light of his unsatisfactory job performance.

The court also determined that the Navy had significant reasons for demoting Carter, and there was no evidence that these reasons were a pretext to retaliate against him for filing his EEO complaint.

The court similarly rejected Carter’s claim that he was subjected to a racially hostile work environment due to the display of the poster and the discipline he received from his new supervisor. According to the court, there was no evidence to support a conclusion that Carter was treated differently than other employees for similar behavior. As for the poster, the court was persuaded that the supervisor hung the poster as a joke. Moreover, Carter had not demonstrated that either he or the fellow employee who found the poster offensive had ever complained to the supervisor. Therefore, the supervisor did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the poster was potentially offensive to black employees.

The Navy prevailed on each and every point in this case, but it seems clear that if there had been only minor changes in the facts of the case the results might have been quite different. For instance, employers should carefully scrutinize posters displayed in the workplace and handle and investigate employee complaints immediately.