Law School Case Brief
DeAngelis v. El Paso Mun. Police Officers Ass'n - 51 F.3d 591 (5th Cir. 1995)
In determining whether a working environment is hostile or abusive, all the circumstances must be considered, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. The test is an objective one. Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment, an environment that a reasonable person would not find hostile or abusive, is beyond the purview of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
After six years on duty with the El Paso Police Department as a patrol officer and detective, Sylvia DeAngelis became the first female sergeant in October 1987. Within a few months of promotion, she was satirized by an anonymous writer in The Silver Badge, a newsletter of the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association (the Association), an organization similar to a police officers’ union. The author's nom de plume was R.U. Withmi. He wrote as a patrol officer with nearly 20 years' experience "combatin' crime." His monthly column criticized, in an irreverent and colloquial manner, groups including superior officers. R.U. Withmi lashed out at changing times in the police department while longing for the good old days. The incursion of females into the department, a quintessential element of modernization, did not escape his sharp pen. Several of his columns, published between November 1987 and February 1990, derogatorily referred to policewomen. Publication of the columns angered more than two dozen female police officers, who asked the police chief and officers of the Association to stifle R.U. Withmi. Sergeant DeAngelis' filed suit against the Association for Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 claims and alleged sexually harassment. DeAngelis secured jury findings that R.U. Withmi's articles subjected her to harassment, creating a hostile and sexually abusive working environment, and a reference in one of the columns to her "E-I-E-I-O" complaint amounted to retaliation for exercise of her Title VII rights. The jury awarded Sergeant DeAngelis $ 10,000 in compensatory damages and $ 50,000 punitive damages. The Association has appealed on several grounds, the most compelling of which are if the verdict is upheld, the First Amendment free speech rights of R.U. Withmi have been abridged.
Did El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by sexually harassing plaintiff female police sergeant?
The Court found that four derogatory references to DeAngelis in articles printed in a published association newsletter were not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment. Furthermore, plaintiff was not subjected to overtly discriminatory professional treatment. She was not a victim of ridicule before her promotion to become the first woman sergeant in the department. No physical or sexual advances were made toward plaintiff, nor was she preyed upon by a superior whose actions could be interpreted as an abuse of power against a subordinate employee. Apart from the claimed impact of the articles, there was no evidence of an atmosphere of sexual inequality or sexually demeaning treatment within the police department. The totality of circumstances did not prove that plaintiff's working conditions were disadvantaged. The judgment was reversed.
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