Race, Religion, National Origin Hostile Work Environment Claims Survive Summary Judgment; Evidence Included “Jihadi” Comment

In Thange v. Oxford Global Resources, LLC, 19-5979 (ES) (JRA), 2022 WL 2046938 (D.N.J. June 7, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s race, religion, and national origin-based hostile work environment claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The court summarized the elements of such a claim as follows:

To prove a prima facie claim for hostile work environment under Title VII, a plaintiff must show (i) he suffered intentional discrimination because of his status in a protected class; (ii) the discrimination was severe or pervasive; (iii) the discrimination detrimentally affected him; (iv) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances; and (v) the existence of respondeat superior liability.

The court proceeded to apply each element of this standard to the facts. As to the first element, the court explained:

Turning to the first element of the hostile work environment claim, Oxford disputes whether Adkins’s alleged comments were motivated by racial animus. (Ox. Mov. Br. at 12–14). Specifically, Plaintiff maintains that Adkins asked him whether he was “hiding a bomb,” called him a “jihadi,” and asked whether he was a “jihadist.” (Pl. CSUMF ¶¶ 8, 13–14 & 16).5 According to Plaintiff, Adkins also frequently told him to “shut up” and “be quiet.” (Id. ¶ 8). In addition, Adkins told Plaintiff that “we don’t understand your accent,” “no body’s talking to you,” “no body’s listening (to you),” “no one wants to know what you have to say,” and “we don’t understand what you have to say” during team meetings. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 15 & 24). Finally, a few hours prior to his termination, Adkins allegedly told Plaintiff that “[w]e don’t want your kind of people around.” (Id. ¶¶ 36 & 40).

Oxford argues that none of these comments, taken in isolation, can be viewed as being motivated by Plaintiff’s race, religion, or his national origin. (Ox. Mov. Br. at 12–14). The Court disagrees. The Third Circuit has held that “the advent of more sophisticated and subtle forms of discrimination requires that we analyze the aggregate effect of all evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom, including those concerning incidents of facially neutral mistreatment, in evaluating a hostile work environment claim.” Dey, 2022 WL 596977, at *6 (denying summary judgment where the defendant used derogatory racial comments, categorically shut down the plaintiff’s suggestions, and repeatedly commented on her inability to understand the plaintiff). Viewing the record in the aggregate, the Court finds that Plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Adkins’s comments were motivated by animus based on race, religion, or national origin. Thus, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that all of the alleged mistreatment, including the facially neutral conduct, was related to Plaintiff’s race, religion, or national origin.

The court also found that whether the comments qualify as “severe or pervasive” is a question best left to a jury, rather than being decided as a matter of law on summary judgment.

As to element five, the court held that while plaintiff could not establish respondeat superior liability as to defendant Oxford (since there was insufficient evidence in the record to support the claim that Oxford knew or should have known about the allegedly discriminatory conduct), plaintiff’s claims against defendant Atlantic would proceed to a jury (in light of, e.g., plaintiff’s contention that an Atlantic manager “allegedly smiled” after overhearing plaintiff’s co-worker ask plaintiff if he was a “jihadist”).

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