Thursday, July 1, 2010


New Image I don't think I've ever handled a case in which, at one point or another, and often in courtsubmissions, my client wasn't labeled a "disgruntled employee."  Since the context invariably meant that my client was suing her present or former employer,it was hard to argue that he or she was happy. But, still, there seemed an effort to hint at something more than the obvious. The OED says that the verb “disgruntle” means “[t]o put in sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust.” Consequently, the adjective "disgruntled" adds a kind of sulkiness or ill-humor gloss to the fact that the plaintiff is seeking to vindicate her rights. And courts certainly recognize that it's not good to be called disgruntled. Austion v. City of Clarksville, 244 F. App’x 639, 652 (6th Cir. 2007) (letter referring to employee as “disgruntled employee” and “complainer” was considered evidence of hostile work environment).

It's not surprising that defense attorneys use terms with a negative connotation to describe their adversaries, but "disgruntled" is creeping into judicial opinions.  One not-infrequent use is in first amendment cases where courts deploy the term when they conclude that the employee's speech was about some private grievance and not a matter of public concern. See Carleton v. County of L.A., No. 08-56183, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 6710 (9th Cir. Mar. 31, 2010).   But other courts seem to use the term generally to describe any complaint made by an employee. See Evans v. U. S. Postal Serv.,219 F. App’x 527, 529 (7th Cir. 2007); Lifton v. Bd. of Educ. of Chi., 416 F.3d 571, 575 (7th Cir. 2005). 

I don't know if there's any great significance to this usage, but it is disappointing that the courts adopt words with a negative connotation in employment disputes when they are much more neutral in other settings. Lexis revealed 1004 "disgruntled employees" in its Federal & State Cases database, as compared to 399 "dissatisfied" employees.  When it comes to customers or buyers, the usage flips -- only 195 are disgruntled, with 593 dissatisfied.  And, if you're wondering, there are almost no "disgruntled employers" (24). 

I guess employees are sulkier. 

Thanks to Temi Kolarova for doing the spade work on this for me.    


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Interesting post. I find it bemusing that employer attorneys characterize plaintiffs as "disgruntled." I hear the usage as being a tacit admission that employers routinely discriminate against employees, underpay them, create hostile work environments, and discharge them for a host of unlawful reasons, but that it's only the "disgruntled" employees who stand up for their rights by bringing suit. Too bad more employees aren't "disgruntled," because if more employees stand up for their rights, more positive workplace change will occur. Indeed, more employees might even become "gruntled."

Posted by: James A.W. Shaw | Jul 1, 2010 7:06:51 AM

I see the issue as embodying a notion of desert. The customer deserves to be satisfied, at least in theory. An employee does not. an employee deserves only what the at-will bargain provides--some level of pay for hours worked. Employers get to be dissatisfied in description because they deserve to be satisfied by the quality of employee work.

And those who report discrimination are viewed negatively as complainers (in the majority of case) even by those who know that they actually were discriminated against. I think the source for that is this: Major, B. & Kaiser, C. R. (2005). Perceiving and claiming discrimination. In Nielsen,.L. B. and Nelson, R. L. (Eds.) The Handbook of Research on Employment Discrimination: Rights and Realities (pp. 279-293). New York: Springer. It's not surprising that judges would act like people here.

Posted by: Marcia | Jul 1, 2010 12:41:39 PM

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