Dolphins case spotlights workplace bullying

By now, most have heard of the troubles between Richie Incognito, a white veteran offensive lineman, and Jonathan Martin, an African-American second-year lineman, plaguing the Miami Dolphins and bringing attention to an alleged culture of workplace bullying in the National Football League. Martin appears to have a plethora of legal claims against the football team for workplace discrimination and harassment, as well as a substantial claim against Incognito himself.

To briefly summarize, Martin walked away from the team on October 28 after a lunchroom prank orchestrated by Incognito, Martin’s frequent tormentor and the offensive line’s unofficial leader. A group of players stood up and left when Martin tried joining them for lunch. Martin later accused the Dolphins of having an unsafe working environment. While the team initially downplayed Martin’s departure, it has since suspended Incognito. The NFL launched an investigation into bullying and harassment charges stemming from Martin’s complaints.

Martin’s lawyer alleges that he endured harassment that was far more than locker room hazing. Beyond a well-publicized voicemail involving a racial epithet, Martin endured daily vulgar comments and a malicious physical attack by a teammate. News accounts indicate there is little doubt Incognito has been threatening and intimidating Martin for many months and that at least a portion of his attacks were based on race.

Martin likely has claims for racial harassment and discrimination against the Dolphins, a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act, as well as potential tort claims, including infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision. To succeed in a lawsuit against the Dolphins based on anti-discrimination statutes, Martin must meet the requirements of a “hostile work environment,” which requires showing that the abuse was severe or pervasive. To hold the Dolphins accountable, he will have to show that the team’s management knew of the harassment, joined in the abuse, or encouraged it. Moreover, Martin may have a substantial claim against Incognito under a Florida law – Evidencing Prejudice While Committing Offense – that provides for triple damages against a harasser. At least one commentator has speculated that Martin’s potential damages under the Florida law—should he not return to football—could be as high as $17 million.

It is important to note that anti-discrimination statutes are not, in the words of one court, “a general civility code.” The law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents. Rather, the conduct must be bad enough to alter the conditions of the individual’s employment. A complaint that a single co-worker, no matter how obnoxious, acted in a bullying manner, but did not base the bullying on gender, race, age, disability, or another protected characteristic under anti-discrimination laws, is unlikely a sufficient basis for a lawsuit.