Pregnancy-Related Title VII Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed; Three Alleged Remarks in One-Month Period Insufficiently “Severe” or “Pervasive”

In Barton et al v. Warren County et al, 2020 WL 4569465 (N.D.N.Y. August 7, 2020), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiffs’ gender/pregnancy-based hostile work environment claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[1]Here, for the sake of narrowing the discussion, I’ll discuss the court’s evaluation of the claims asserted by one plaintiff (Frank).

The court summarized the well-established “black letter” law as to the elements of a Title VII hostile work environment claim:

To state a claim for a Title VII hostile work environment violation, a plaintiff must plead facts that would tend to show that the complained of conduct:

(1) is objectively severe or pervasive–that is, … creates an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive;

(2) creates an environment that the plaintiff subjectively perceives as hostile or abusive; and

(3) creates such an environment because of the plaintiff’s sex. Patane v. Clark, 508 F.3d 106, 113 (2d Cir. 2007). [Internal quotation marks omitted, paragraphing altered.]

Applying the law, the court held that plaintiff Frank (in contrast to the other plaintiff, Barton) met the “subjective” component of the test:

Plaintiff Frank alleged that on July 5, 2018, a fellow officer commented to another officer that she “was lazy since she had become pregnant.” … Plaintiff Frank also alleged that the same officer, on at least three occasions, “made negative comments about her pregnancy and her capacity to perform her duties as a corrections officer.” … Additionally, Plaintiff Frank alleged that the same officer commented that her “reasonable accommodation was ‘unfair.’ ” … In July 2018, Plaintiff Frank reported at least two of the above incidents to senior officers and submitted a written report. … As alleged, these comments sufficiently target Plaintiff Frank’s sex because of her pregnancy, and plausibly suggest that Plaintiff Frank subjectively found that this conduct amounted to a hostile work environment. [Citations omitted.]

Unfortunately, the court found that plaintiff failed to meet the “objective” prong:

However, Plaintiff Frank fails to show that she was subjected to an objectively hostile work environment. [S]imple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in terms and conditions of employment. … [R]un-of-the-mill workplace conflicts, troubling though they may be, do not rise to the level of an objectively hostile workplace. … When analyzing severity, a court must distinguish between merely offensive or boorish conduct and conduct that is sufficiently severe as to alter the conditions of employment.

Even when her Complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff Frank, the Court finds that she has failed to allege any facts plausibly suggesting sufficiently severe or pervasive misconduct to alter the conditions of her employment. The three alleged negative comments from her fellow corrections officer occurred over the course of a one-month period. … Simply stated, these alleged comments lack both the pervasiveness and severity to plausibly suggest that Plaintiff Frank was subjected to an objectively hostile work environment.

[Citations and internal quotation marks omitted.]

Based on this, the court held that plaintiff’s complaint failed to allege facts plausibly suggesting that she was subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII, and dismissed that claim without prejudice (noting that the defects in plaintiff’s complaint were “not substantive” such that “better pleading could cure them”).

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1. Here, for the sake of narrowing the discussion, I’ll discuss the court’s evaluation of the claims asserted by one plaintiff (Frank).
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