Title VII Race- and Gender-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Dismissed; Single Comments Insufficient

In Grant v. Baltimore Police Department, No. RDB-21-2173, 2022 WL 1321593 (D.Md. May 3, 2022), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s claim of hostile work environment asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This case illustrates that not everything negative that happens to an employee in the workplace will give rise to an actionable “hostile work environment.”

From the decision:

Plaintiff’s Title VII claim for hostile work environment is also subject to dismissal, albeit without prejudice and with leave to amend. To state a claim under Title VII for hostile work environment based on race, the plaintiff must allege that there was: (1) unwelcome conduct; (2) that is based on the plaintiff’s race; (3) which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the plaintiff’s conditions of employment and to create an abusive work environment; and (4) which is imputable to the employer.

In weighing whether conduct was sufficiently “severe or pervasive,” courts consider the following factors: (1) the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993). The Fourth Circuit has set a high bar in order to satisfy the severe or pervasive test.

The Fourth Circuit has recognized that workplaces are not always harmonious locales, and even incidents that would objectively give rise to bruised or wounded feelings will not on that account satisfy the severe or pervasive standard. Some rolling with the punches is a fact of workplace life. Thus, complaints premised on nothing more than rude treatment by coworkers, callous behavior by one’s superiors, or a routine difference of opinion and personality conflict with one’s supervisor, are not actionable under Title VII.

Ultimately, whether the environment is objectively hostile or abusive is judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position.

In this case, Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged that she was the recipient of any unwelcome conduct on the basis of her race. While she does allege that Major Handley made a disparaging remark about a Black job applicant, she does not allege that any racially charged language was ever directed at her. As to gender, Plaintiff has alleged that she was informed that Major Handley made reference to a “short bitch” and that she believed the comment was directed at her.  Apart from that single, second-hand remark, Plaintiff has alleged no gender-based conduct against her. Moreover, Plaintiff’s description of her working conditions falls short of alleging an abusive work environment. As the Fourth Circuit has held, evaluation and criticism of one’s work performance, while perhaps unpleasant, is not abusive.

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Accordingly, the court dismissed plaintiff’s Title VII hostile work environment claims. It did, however, do so “without prejudice,” which permits plaintiff to amend her complaint.

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