Accent Comment Did Not Give Rise to Hostile Work Environment

From Chioke v. Department of Education of City of New York, 15-cv-01845, 2018 WL 3118268 (E.D.N.Y. June 25, 2018):

Chioke argues that the following specific incidents contributed to a hostile work environment: Monheit “requesting she bring in her credentials”; “Monheit commenting on her accent”; her “not being able to take time off to see her dying sister who was in a coma”; and her “having to struggle to get time off to attend her sister’s funeral.” Pl.’s Mem. 17–18. She also points to “other conduct directed at her as set forth in the Circumstantial Evidence Section of [her] memorandum of law.” Id. at 18. Except for the comment relating to Chioke’s accent, however, all of these incidents are race-neutral and unrelated to her national origin. While “[f]acially neutral incidents may be included … among the ‘totality of circumstances’ that courts consider in any hostile work environment claim,” there must still be “some circumstantial or other basis for inferring that [such] incidents … were in fact discriminatory.” Alfano v. Costello, 294 F.3d 365, 378 (2d Cir. 2002). Because no such basis exists here, nearly all of the incidents “must be excluded from consideration.” Id. at 377.

That leaves Monheit’s comment about Chioke’s accent. Although “a single episode of harassment, if severe enough, can establish a hostile work environment,” Torres v. Pisano, 116 F.3d 625, 631 n.4 (2d Cir. 1997), Monheit’s comment does not. As Chioke recounts it, Monheit told her that “because of her accent, he could not understand her.” Pl.’s Mem. 9. Construed in the light most favorable to Chioke, this comment was rude and perhaps offensive. But standing alone, it was not “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment.” Harris, 510 U.S. at 21 (quoting Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986) ); see also Boza–Meade v. Rochester Hous. Auth., 170 F. Supp. 3d 535, 547 (W.D.N.Y. 2016) (“Vague allegations that co-workers made fun of her accent in connection with Plaintiff’s pronunciation of streets, with no additional supporting factual information as to the context and frequency of this conduct, … do not plausibly allege conduct that is sufficiently severe so as to alter the terms and conditions of Plaintiff’s employment.”). Chioke’s hostile work environment claim fails.

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