Hostile Work Environment Claim, Based on Mocking of Accent, Dismissed

In Zheng-Smith v. Nassau Health Care Corporation, 18-cv-2585, 2020 WL 55117486 (EDNY Sept. 14, 2020), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims alleged under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law.

The court explained the black-letter law as follows:

Although courts are generally reluctant to grant summary judgment in such matters, courts use a totality of the circumstances approach for determining whether a plaintiff’s work environment is sufficiently hostile to support a hostile work environment claim. … A hostile work environment claim requires a showing first that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment, and second that a specific basis exists for imputing the conduct that created the hostile work environment to the employer. … Incidents of harassment must be continuous and not merely episodic. … In evaluating whether a workplace is hostile, courts consider several factors including: the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, as opposed to merely an offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance. … As such, simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) are generally insufficient to sustain a hostile work environment claim. [Internal citations and quotation marks omitted; paragraphing altered.]

Here, plaintiff alleged that one of the individual defendants (Riggs) “ridiculed and mocked” plaintiff’s accent; complained that he “could not understand” plaintiff; complained that plaintiff was speaking too quickly; and asked plaintiff’s mentor to translate what plaintiff was saying and to help him understand plaintiff.

Applying the law, the court explained:

Mocking an individual’s accent is inappropriate and may, under certain circumstances, provide a basis for successful claims of discrimination or a hostile work environment. In this case, however, these incidents alone fail to establish an environment permeated with discrimination, intimidation, ridicule, and insult, as necessary to sustain a hostile work environment claim. The only alleged instance of direct mocking occurred on January 6, 2017. No reasonable juror could find that Dr. Riggs’s comments were continuous and concerted or constituted a steady barrage of opprobrious comments. [Internal citations and quotation marks omitted.]

Therefore, held the court, defendants were entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims.

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