2d Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Race-Based Co-Worker Hostile Work Environment Case Against NYC Transit Authority

In Watkins v. NYC Transit Authority, 2021 WL 2099229 (2d Cir. May 25, 2021) (Summary Order), the Court affirmed the lower court’s order denying plaintiff’s motion for a new trial following a defense jury verdict.

The court summarized the facts of the case as follows:

On September 28, 2015, Watkins, a Caribbean-American Black woman, began training as a train operator for the Transit Authority. Watkins testified that during her training her co-worker, Tequisha Jenkins, also a Black woman, repeatedly made racially-derogatory comments to Watkins suggesting inferentially that she was not “black enough.” Watkins testified that Jenkins (1) called her “a black girl with dirty blond hair,” an “Oreo,” and “Rasputia,” (2) “ma[de] honking noises insinuating that [Watkins] did not speak black,” and (3) “mock[ed] [Watkins’s] dialect in a valley girl accent when [Watkins] did answer questions.” Watkins further testified that the Transit Authority’s training instructors failed to intervene despite being present in the classroom during Jenkins’s harassment and use of racial slurs.

Months later, on February 21, 2016, Watkins and Jenkins took part in a training exercise on starting a train. Watkins boarded the first train car and turned on the high beam headlights. Jenkins, who was on the tracks in front of the train, became upset at Watkins for turning on the headlights, which caused Jenkins to fear that the train would start to move. Jenkins aimed “a lot of profanity and a lot of derogative comments” at Watkins, calling her “[f]’ing stupid” and threatening her, saying, “I’ll ‘F’ you up,” called Watkins “fake” and “phony,” and said she had “goons to handle [Watkins].” But none of Jenkins’s words revealed any racial basis for her hostility. Watkins filed an incident report with the Transit Authority describing the altercation without mentioning any race-based motivation for Jenkins’s conduct. Watkins also testified that, after the incident, she told Transit Authority supervisory personnel that Jenkins had subjected her to racially discriminatory harassment throughout their training period. Watkins and Jenkins were then both terminated for violating the Transit Authority’s rule prohibiting workplace altercations. [Citations omitted.]

At trial, the district court – in response to defendant’s motion to preclude evidence of plaintiff’s termination as irrelevant to her hostile work environment claim – allowed plaintiff to testify about the February 21 incident and her termination, but limited her testimony to explaining that she had been involved in an altercation with Jenkins and was subsequently fired.

Ultimately, the district court instructed the jury, in determining whether plaintiff had proven her hostile environment claims, not to consider: (1) the February 21, 2016 incident between Watkins and Jenkins, (2) the Transit Authority’s investigation of the incident, and (3) the termination of Watkins’s employment.

In finding that plaintiffs hostile work environment claim was properly dismissed, the Second Circuit explained:

Watkins failed to present a legally sufficient case to the jury because she failed show an adequate basis for imputing knowledge of Jenkins’s race-based harassment to the Transit Authority. Her only evidence offered in support of the Transit Authority’s knowledge prior to February 21 was the presence of instructors in the classroom near her when she heard Jenkins’s insults. That was insufficient to support the inference that the instructors were aware, or should have been aware, that a severe or pervasive pattern of race-based harassment was occurring.

The harassment took place in a classroom in which there were about 11 trainees and several instructors. Watkins gave no information about what the general noise conditions were at the moments when Jenkins’s taunts were spoken, such as whether they occurred during classroom instruction when the room was otherwise quiet or during breaks when numerous conversations might have been going on at the same time among the approximately 15 trainees and instructors. Nor did she furnish information as to whether the instructors were engaged in other conversations at those moments. The mere fact that instructors were within earshot of what Watkins heard Jenkins say is insufficient by itself to support the inference that they actually heard or paid attention to Jenkins’s words, much less that they understood those insinuations as constituting one student’s race-baiting of another. None of the seven witnesses who had been present in the classroom, who could have corroborated Jenkins’s racial harassment, including two classmates called by Watkins, testified to having heard Jenkins’s race-based slurs. It is undisputed, furthermore, that Watkins did not inform supervisors of Jenkins’s race baiting prior to the February 21 altercation.

It also held that the February 21 incident was “race neutral”, and that “[w]ithout prior awareness of Jenkins’s earlier race-based taunts, supervisors who witnessed the overtly race-neutral February 21 altercation would have had no way of suspecting that Jenkins’s aggressions might have involved race-based animosity.”

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