Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Sufficiently Alleged Against Winthrop University Hospital

In Wooding v. Winthrop Univ. Hosp., No. 16-cv-4477, 2017 WL 2559942 (E.D.N.Y. June 12, 2017), the court held that plaintiff plausibly alleged a racially hostile work environment.

It provides a summary/overview of the pleading standards for this type of claim:

To establish a hostile work environment claim under federal and New York State law, a plaintiff must show that her workplace was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that [was] sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [her] employment and create an abusive working environment.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21, 114 S. Ct. 367, 126 L.Ed. 2d 295 (1993) (quotation marks and citations omitted); Patterson v. Cty. of Oneida, 375 F.3d 206, 227 (2d Cir. 2004); see also Kumaga v. N.Y. City School Constr. Auth., 27 Misc.3d 1207(A), 2010 WL 1444513, at *8 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Apr. 2, 2010) (NYSHRL); Forrest v. Jewish Guild for Blind, 3 N.Y.3d 295, 305, 310–11, 786 N.Y.S.2d 382, 819 N.E.2d 998, (N.Y. 2004) (applying the standard for New York state law claim of hostile work environment).

Courts must look at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether an environment is “hostile” or “abusive” and should consider: (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, 510 U.S. at 23.

The Plaintiff must demonstrate that the conduct at issue created an environment that is both objectively and subjectively hostile. Richardson v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. Serv., 180 F.3d 426, 436 (2d Cir. 1999); White v. Fuji Photo Film USA, Inc., 434 F. Supp. 2d 144, 154–155 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). Therefore, the Plaintiff must allege not only that he found the environment offensive, but that a reasonable person also would have found the environment to be hostile or abusive. Harris, 510 U.S. at 21–22.

Even when a plaintiff establishes that he was exposed to an objectively and subjectively hostile work environment, “[ ]he will not have a claim … unless [ ]he can also demonstrate that the hostile work environment was caused by animus towards [him] as a result of [his] membership in a protected class.” Sullivan v. Newburgh Enlarged Sch. Dist. Clarence Cooper, 281 F. Supp. 2d 689, 704 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); see also Fordham v. Islip Union Free Sch. Dist., 662 F. Supp. 2d 261, 273 (E.D.N.Y. 2009) (stating that incidents comprising a hostile work environment claim must occur under circumstances where the “incidents can reasonably be interpreted as having taken place on the basis of that trait or condition”).

*14 However, a plaintiff need not prove all of this at the pleading stage. “Specifically, for a 12(b)(6) motion, a ‘plaintiff need only plead facts sufficient to support the conclusion that [ ]he was faced with ‘harassment … of such quality or quantity that a reasonable employee would find the conditions of h[is] employment altered for the worse.’ ” Buckley v. N.Y., 959 F. Supp. 2d 282, 300 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (Spatt, J.) (quoting Patane v. Clark, 508 F.3d 106, 113 (2d Cir. 2007)). The Plaintiff must still allege that he was subjected to that harassment or hostility because of his membership in that class.

Applying the law, the court held that plaintiff met this standard:

Here, the Plaintiff alleges that over the course of his two year tenure, his supervisors screamed at him in front of patients and staff on several occasions; tore up his medical paperwork in front of patients and staff; cursed at him in front of patients and staff; subjected him to arbitrary discipline; stripped him of his title of chief physician’s assistant; and isolated him by preventing him from communicating with his peers.

In isolation, each of these events would be insufficient to allege a cause of action for hostile work environment. However, taken together, and viewed through the lens where the Plaintiff’s supervisors allegedly referred to him as a “nigger” to the Plaintiff’s co-worker, the events could lead a rational juror to conclude that the Plaintiff was subjected to a hostile work environment because of his race. As the Court stated above, “no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as ‘nigger’ by a supervisor in the presence of subordinates.” Ewing, 2001 WL 767070, at *7 (quoting Cruz, 202 F.3d at 571).

Against that backdrop, even ostensibly race-neutral allegations, such as those listed above, can plausibly be interpreted as contributing to a racially hostile environment. See Crawford v. AMTRAK, No. 3:15-cv-131, 2015 WL 8023680, at *6–*7, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162608, at *22 (D. Conn. Dec. 4, 2015) (finding that, although some allegedly discriminatory remarks were “on their face race neutral, when evaluated in the context of the alleged ambience at the [plaintiff’s place of employment], the comments [were] susceptible of being understood as harassment motivated by racial animus”).

At this early stage, the question for the Court is simply whether, taken together, a jury crediting the Plaintiff’s allegations could reasonably find pervasive harassment so that his employment was altered for the worse. See Crawford, 2015 WL 8023680, at *8–*9, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162608, at *28 (quoting Torres v. Pisano, 116 F.3d 625, 631 (2d Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 997, 118 S. Ct. 563, 139 L.Ed. 2d 404 (1997)). On the facts and circumstances of this case, the Court answers this question in the affirmative.

Notably, the court cited Second Circuit precedent for the principle that:

While the standard for establishing a hostile work environment is high, we have repeatedly cautioned against setting the bar too high, noting that [w]hile a mild, isolated incident does not make a work environment hostile, the test is whether the harassment is of such quality or quantity that a reasonable employee would find the conditions of her employment altered for the worse.

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