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Court Revives Employee's Hostile Work Environment Complaint

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 09, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Summary judgments get called a lot of names -- MSJ, summary adjudication, judgment as a matter of law.

In the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, the judges call it "the summary judgment ax." At least that's how they described it in Rivera-Rivera v. Medina & Medina, a hostile work environment case.

The appeals court affirmed in part and reversed in part a decision on summary judgment. Basically, the trial judge should have used a scalpel instead of an ax.

Summary Judgment Axes

Martina Rivera-Rivera worked as a marketing manager for Medina & Medina. In 2011, she said her bosses started harassing her and yelling at her. They called her "old," "useless," and "worthless," she alleged in her age, gender and wage discrimination complaint.

A trial judge dismissed her case on summary judgment, concluding that the plaintiff did not "provide the level of specificity necessary to back up her causes of action." The name-calling was "too mild to form the basis of a hostile work environment claim," the court said.

The appeals court agreed as far as the wages, but not for the hostile work environment claims. Rivera's declarations were sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

"Though we recognize the lower court here didn't get it all wrong, it nevertheless disposed of numerous claims that should have been spared the summary judgment ax," Judge Ojetta Thompson wrote for the appeals panel.

Not "All Wrong"

The First Circuit explained that judges are not supposed to be factfinders when evaluating summary judgment motions.

"In what should come as a surprise to no one, then, courts should never be in the business of granting such motions when the case's material facts are genuinely disputed by the parties," the appeals court said.

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