Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed; Santa Claus Role Denial (etc.) Insufficient

In Fleurentin v. New York City Health & Hospitals Corp. et al,  18-cv-05004, 2020 WL 42841 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2020), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

In this case, in sum, plaintiff – a Haitian man – alleged that “over the course of a decade the defendants repeatedly discriminated against him based on his race, color, or national origin by failing to increase his salary, failing to promote him to more senior roles, transferring him out of his preferred department, and forcing him to take on ‘degrading’ and humiliating tasks.”

As to his hostile work environment claim, the court initially determined that plaintiff’s claim was timely under the “continuing violations doctrine.”

It summarized and applied that rule as follows (citations and internal quotation marks omitted, paragraphing added):

Unlike the plaintiff’s failure to promote claims, his hostile work environment claims are different in kind from discrete acts because [t]heir very nature involves repeated conduct. As a result, under the continuing violations doctrine, if a Title VII plaintiff has experienced an ongoing policy of discrimination, all claims of acts of discrimination under that policy will be timely even if they would be untimely standing alone. Under the continuing violations doctrine, the statute of limitations runs from the “last act” of discrimination. For the continuing violation doctrine to apply to his otherwise time-barred allegations of a hostile work environment, the plaintiff must allege both the existence of an ongoing policy of discrimination and some non-time-barred acts taken in furtherance of that policy.

The plaintiff cites three incidents: his supervisor, Marie Millet, refusing to let him play Santa Claus at a holiday event because of his accent, his reassignment to the Department of Community Affairs, and the defendants “embarrass[ing]” and “humiliat[ing]” him by directing him to distribute bananas to patients—which he saw as a reference to his Haitian background. All of these incidents involved the same supervisor and allegedly targeted the plaintiff because of his membership in a protected class. It is not immediately obvious to me that refusing to let an employee play the part of Santa Claus at a party falls into the category of work-related actions. Nevertheless, giving the plaintiff the benefit of every conceivable doubt, I conclude that he has sufficiently alleged a continuing violation by the defendants that extended into 2016, and that the plaintiff’s Title VII hostile work environment claim is not time-barred.

Turning to the merits, the court held:

The actions the plaintiff cites are neither severe nor pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment claim. His supervisor, Ms. Millet, denied the plaintiff the chance to be Santa Claus because of his Haitian accent, reassigned the plaintiff to the Department of Community Affairs, and asked the plaintiff to distribute food to patients and inspect cooking equipment, tasks the plaintiff says are degrading. (ECF No. 25 ¶¶ 102-109.) None of these discrete, sporadic incidents was “extraordinarily severe.” Cruz, 202 F.3d at 570. Denying the plaintiff the opportunity to play Santa Claus or asking him to distribute bananas to patients “cannot reasonably be characterized as physically threatening or humiliating.” Brennan, 192 F.3d at 319 (finding no hostile work environment based on sex where male co-worker put up pictures of nude and partially clothed men in office shared with female plaintiff). Nor do these tasks seem to have interfered with the plaintiff’s employment. The plaintiff acknowledges that picking up and delivering food was part of his job in the Community Affairs Department. (ECF No. 25 ¶¶ 75-77.) Accordingly, the hostile work environment claim is dismissed.

The court also found that plaintiff’s claims were insufficient under the comparatively broader New York City Human Rights Law.