Practicing Nazirite Sufficiently Alleges Religion-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim

In Brooks v. City of Utica, No. 16-cv-1427, 2017 WL 3242273 (N.D.N.Y. July 28, 2017), the court ruled on claims asserted by plaintiff – a firefighter-paramedic and practicing Nazirite – of discrimination based on religion, retaliation, failure to accommodate religious beliefs, and hostile work environment.

Plaintiff’s religious observance as a Nazirite required him to keep his hair long. He alleges that defendant failed to accommodate his religious beliefs and, following his accommodation request, subjected him to retaliation and a hostile work environment.

In this post I’ll discuss the court’s decision to deny defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim (I discussed the court’s evaluation of plaintiff’s retaliation claim here).

Here is the legal standard:

To state a Title VII hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must first demonstrate that she experienced harassment “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” Alfano v. Costello, 294 F.3d 365, 373 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Perry v. Ethan Allen, Inc., 115 F.3d 143, 149 (2d Cir. 1997)). The plaintiff must also show “that a specific basis exists for imputing the objectionable conduct to the employer.” Id. A hostile work environment claim has “objective and subjective elements: the misconduct shown must be ‘severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment,’ and the victim must also subjectively perceive that environment to be abusive.” Id. at 374 (quoting Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993)). “As a general rule, incidents must be more than ‘episodic; they must be sufficiently continuous and concerted in order to be deemed pervasive.’ ” Alfano, 294 F.3d at 374 (quoting Perry, 115 F.3d at 149); see also Redd v. N.Y. State Div. of Parole, 678 F.3d 166, 175–76 (2d Cir. 2012) (“Isolated incidents usually will not suffice to establish a hostile work environment….”). In evaluating a hostile work environment claim, a court must have some “reason to believe” that the incidents were “motivated by the plaintiff’s [protected characteristics].”

Applying the law, the court held that plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim should not be dismissed:

Plaintiff alleges that for approximately six months, Defendant threatened to discipline him, ordered him to wear an ill-fitting baseball cap and hairnet, subjected him to daily inspections and monitoring, challenged and ridiculed his sincerely held religious beliefs, ignored his requests for a reasonable accommodation, and refused to accept his repeated requests to file an internal complaint. Compl. ¶¶ 20, 67, 95. Defendant argues that these allegations fail to state a plausible hostile work environment claim. Mem. at 11–18. The Court disagrees.
Plaintiff states that his supervisors repeatedly threatened him with discipline for not complying with grooming standards. Plaintiff was told he would be disciplined for noncompliance on three occasions. On January 21, 2015, Kelly ordered Plaintiff to cut his hair or face the possibility of being relieved of duty. Compl. ¶ 22. On January 23, 2015, a letter from Clark reiterated that Plaintiff would face discipline if he did not cut his hair. Id. ¶ 29. Lastly, Clark issued written orders on May 1, 2015, informing Plaintiff that he must restrain his hair to comply with grooming standards and that failure to do so would result in disciplinary action. Id. Ex. G.
Plaintiff also alleges that he was subjected to daily inspections, an allegation supported by Clark’s orders stating that Plaintiff’s “officer and the shift supervisor will monitor [his] appearance daily and submit a report to [Clark’s] office stating that [he] is complying with this directive.” Id.While Plaintiff does not provide further details about what these inspections entailed, the Court draws the reasonable inference that noncompliance would result in the disciplinary action threatened by his supervisors. Id.
In addition to the threats of discipline, the excessive scrutiny, and the daily monitoring of his appearance, Plaintiff’s supervisors challenged and ridiculed his sincerely held religious beliefs. For example, Plaintiff was told in a letter that “research” revealed that many Nazirites do not observe the practice of letting their hair grow out. Id. Ex. F. Another letter stated that “if it is determined you are not a Nazarite or have in fact never been a Nazarite, disciplinary action may also occur as a result of any deception.” Id. Ex. G. And the Complaint recounts an incident in which Clark questioned Plaintiff about the Nazirite observance of not cutting one’s hair. Id. ¶ 30. While several of these incidents did not explicitly involve Plaintiff’ religion, they all stemmed from his attempts to obtain an accommodation for his religious beliefs. That gives the Court reason to believe these incidents were “motivated by the plaintiff’s [religion].” Sanderson, 560 Fed.Appx. at 92. For example, Clark accused Plaintiff of being “anti-establishment” while interrogating him about his Nazirite beliefs, Compl. ¶ 30, and after Wusik received an email from Plaintiff inquiring into the status of his harassment claims, he said to Plaintiff, “you have no respect for yourself or your father,” then tapped him on the head with an envelope and said, “I don’t understand guys like you.” Id. ¶¶ 45–47.
Finally, Plaintiff alleges that he discovered it was unsafe to operate his air tank while wearing a hairnet. Id. Ex. H. According to Plaintiff, “[a]lthough Defendant initially denied and/or ignored Plaintiff’s request for a reasonable accommodation based on safety concerns[,] Defendant never conducted a fit test to determine if the length of Plaintiff’s head hair actually interfered with the proper function of the safety equipment.” Id. ¶ 66. The Complaint does not indicate that a fit test was performed to determine whether it was safe to use the equipment while wearing a hairnet. Id. Courts have found that requiring employees to engage in dangerous tasks without appropriate safety equipment can contribute to the creation of a hostile work environment. E.g.Gonzales v. Eagle Leasing Co., No. 13-CV-1565, 2014 WL 4794536, at *5 (D. Conn. Sep. 25, 2014).
*9 Considering the totality of the circumstances, especially the potential safety hazard created by the hairnet requirement, these incidents are sufficiently severe and pervasive to state a plausible hostile work environment claim. Court have declined to dismiss hostile work environment claims premised on less egregious conduct than that alleged here. SeeLebowitz v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., No. 15-CV-2890, 2017 WL 1232472, at *14 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2017)(finding that a teacher who was threatened with her job and license, was given negative ratings, had a door slammed in her face, and was bullied by other teachers and called a “disgrace” sufficiently alleged a hostile work environment); Brown v. City of New York, No. 10-CV-6491, 2011 WL 2693677, at *3, 7–8 (S.D.N.Y. July 11, 2011) (determining that two teachers stated a hostile work environment claim when they were allegedly the target of a principal’s desire to staff positions with Jamaicans, which resulted in sixty-two unannounced pop-in visits to their classrooms and being called “incompetent”). Thus, the Court will not dismiss Plaintiff’s [Title VII] hostile work environment claim.
Since courts “rely on federal law when determining claims under the New York State Human Rights Law,” the court held that plaintiff’s retaliation and hostile work environment claims under that statute likewise survived dismissal.