Thursday, July 1, 2010
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.