Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed; Single “Stupid African” Remark Insufficiently “Severe”

In Nyambi v. Delta Airlines, Inc., No. 2:21-cv-00369-JHC, 2022 WL 1443741 (W.D.Wash. May 6, 2022), the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

Assuming Plaintiff pleaded a hostile work environment claim, he fails to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether verbal or physical conduct of a discriminatory nature was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of his employment and create an abusive work environment.

Plaintiff says that he was subjected to a hostile environment because Shields yelled at him and called him a “stupid African” and because of incidents in which Ivanekov and Mohamed threatened and tried to physically fight him. He says these incidents culminated in him resigning from the Agent in Charge position. Defendant responds that, according to Plaintiff’s own deposition testimony, Shields was the only person to treat Plaintiff less favorably based on his race or national origin and that the negative treatment by Shields was limited to one yelling match. Defendant argues that the one incident alone cannot be the basis for a hostile work environment claim.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, he fails to show that conduct of a racial nature was sufficiently severe or pervasive to sustain his claim. Plaintiff identifies only one instance of conduct based on his race or national origin—when Shields allegedly called him a “stupid African.” Indeed, Plaintiff testified during his deposition that Shields was the only Delta employee to subject him to racially disparaging comments or to treat him less favorably based on race or national origin. If one incident suffices for a hostile work environment claim, it must be “extremely serious.”

[Cleaned up.]

The court cited various cases to support this point, and concluded that “[a] plaintiff must present more evidence than offered here to avoid summary judgment on the claim.” For example, it contrasted the instant case with one (Reynaga v. Roseburg Forest Prod., 847 F.3d 678, 687 (9th Cir. 2017)) which held that summary judgment was inappropriate, based on evidence that a coworker used “slurs against Black, Arab, and Native American people and repeated comments about closing ‘the borders to keep motherf***ers like you from coming up here’ and how ‘[m]inorities are taking over the country’ to the Mexican plaintiff,” which “created a genuine issue of material fact regarding the severity and pervasiveness of conduct.”

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