Federal Judge Links Hostile Workplace And Retaliation

A federal judge has upheld a claim by accountant of Indian origin that he was subjected to a hostile workplace in retaliation for filing discrimination complaints against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang of Maryland said a hostile work environment exists under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when the workplace is permeated with “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult” that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive work environment.

He said some of the harassment suffered by accountant Samba Vedula, who joined HHS in 2010, was not particularly severe and/or involved management discretion but “several of the verbal confrontations were insulting and humiliating, and the pervasiveness of these actions was so pronounced” that a jury could find the existence of a hostile workplace environment.

Judge Chuang said Vedula failed to show the harassment was directed at his national origin and sex but did produce sufficient evidence to show the harassment was the result of retaliation for filing complaints about the harassment with the HHS.

The adverse actions taken by HHS supervisors after Vedula’s complaints “constitute materially adverse actions for purposes of the retaliation claim because they would have ‘dissuade[d] a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination,'” writes Judge Chaung.

According to the decision, Vedula’s problems began when a newly appointed supervisor, Sophia Ferrer, who is African American, burst into a September 2016 meeting that Vedula was holding with several federal employees and contractors. Several witnesses said she angrily screamed at Vedula for five to ten minutes and refused to let him speak, causing him to be upset and embarrassed. He was subsequently stripped of his role as a project manager.

Vedula also complained that Ferrer was designated Systems Account Leader by Vedula’s first-level supervisor, Carol Perrone, a West Indian female, without giving anyone else a chance to apply.  The HHS posted the position for three days. The position requirements were tailored to Ferrer’s experience and Perrone shared the interview questions with Ferrer. Twelve applicants applied, including Vedula, but Ferrer was selected.

Perrone is the director of the HHS’ National Institute of Health Business Systems Operations and Maintenance Division.

Afterward, Vedula said management upped his performance metrics by “600 percent” and “set him up to fail.” Vedula submitted overtime and project related paperwork that disappeared, leading to public criticism. He was denied telework privileges. He was forced to work between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. and then required to report to the office in later that day.

The humiliating public verbal abuse escalated and he was reprimanded for “unprofessional and disrespectful behavior” when he objected to a negative performance review.

Then the unexpected occurred …

Ferrer apparently “felt badly” about her treatment of Vedula and asked to speak with him after a meeting. She apologized for “harassing” and publicly berating him about not completing a task in an unrealistic time. She told him that she did not agree with Perrone’s “ideology.” Ferrer informed him that Perrone had told her on at least five occasions that she wanted to make life so difficult for Vedula that he would quit.

“Perrone told Ferrer to give Vedula tasks with unrealistic deadlines or a broader scope to the assignment to set him up to fail, so she could then take the opportunity to berate him in front of others for not completing the assignment successfully.”

Judge Chuang writes that Perrone’s campaign of abuse was so successful that evidence showed “Vedula began to feel ‘unsafe’ from the ‘harassment and attachs’ and started looking for other jobs.” He said the late night hours began to impair Vedula’s work performance. 

“Ultimately, Vedula began suffering from stress and depression, which led to a five-month leave of medical absence,” Judge Change observed.

Judge Chuang dismissed other claims by noting Vedula failed to connect the harassment he experienced with his sex or national origin. For example, he said Vedula did not provide evidence of hostile comments about his Indian origin.

The case is Vedula v. Alex Azar, Secy. of HHS, No. TDC-18-0376 (Sept. 11, 2020).

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