Verdict Sheet Did Not Confuse Jury in Race Discrimination/Hostile Work Environment Claim, Court Holds

In Young v. Town of Islip et al, 2019 WL 3412113 (E.D.N.Y. July 29, 2019) – in which plaintiff asserted, inter alia, claims of race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the court denied plaintiff’s motion for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a).

In her (new) motion for a new trial, plaintiff asserts that the court erroneously characterized the alleged protected activity as “making claim of racial discrimination” without mention of her complaints regarding the existence of a “hostile work environment.”

Specifically:

The Plaintiff contends that the language in the verdict sheet regarding “racial discrimination” confused the jurors because her evidence of protected activity “sounded in a hostile work environment.” … According to the Plaintiff, the jurors believed the Plaintiff’s “hostile work environment” complaints were beyond their consideration because the language in her complaints did not match the language in the verdict sheet. Id. at 4. Supposedly confirming her argument, the Plaintiff cites an ex parte communication from an unidentified member of the jury who “contacted Counsel for Plaintiff and explained that because Mr. Young’s complaints in her email did not say ‘discrimination’ that the jury did not think they could consider her complaints that did say or reference ‘hostile work environment.’

The court disagreed that the verdict sheet confused the jury, reasoning:

“Protected activity” refers to actions “taken to protest or oppose statutorily prohibited discrimination.” Aspilaire v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc., 612 F. Supp. 2d 289, 308 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). To constitute a protected activity, the complaints at issue must describe treatment related to a protected characteristic rather than “complaining merely of unfair treatment generally.” Id. at 309. Abstract references to a “hostile work environment” standing alone cannot establish a protected activity; they must be tied to a protected characteristic, such as race, religion, gender, or age. …

Thus, the verdict sheet could not have asked the jurors if the Plaintiff’s complaints alleged a “hostile work environment,” because it would have permitted the jurors to reach a conclusion precluded as a matter of law. Rejecting such language was especially important because the factual dispute for the jury to resolve was whether the complaints at issue raised issues of statutorily prohibited discrimination. Including broad “hostile work environment” language might have confused the jury even more, creating the impression that the plaintiff could recover for only general complaints of unfair treatment.

The court also noted that “the language in the verdict sheet encompassed hostile work environment claims”, noting that “‘[r]acial discrimination’ is a broad term that includes various types of race-based unlawful employment practices” and that “[a] hostile work environment claim alleges a particular form of racial discrimination, namely, that an employer’s workplace is so ‘discriminatorily hostile or abusive’ that it ‘alter[s] the conditions of the victim’s employment.’” Therefore, “[b]y asking the jury whether the Plaintiff’s complaints made claims of racial discrimination, the verdict sheet by definition asked whether the Plaintiff raised race-based hostile work environment claims.”