In Cardwell v. Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP et al, 19-cv-10256, 2020 WL 6274826 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 24, 2020), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim.
In sum, plaintiff – a law firm associate – alleged (inter alia) that he was suffered a hostile work environment on account of his race, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 42 U.S.C. 1981.
Judge Woods provides this (refreshingly unique) summary of the basic facts, issues, and procedural posture of the case:
Is Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP—one of the world’s most prestigious law firms—a racist institution? Kaloma Cardwell says it is. Cardwell, who is Black, worked as an associate at Davis Polk for four years. There, he alleges that Defendants discriminated against him because of his race. When he complained about the discrimination, Cardwell alleges that Defendants orchestrated a campaign to retaliate against him by giving him negative performance evaluations. Defendants then allegedly used these performance evaluations as a pretext to stop assigning Cardwell work. And it worked: Cardwell billed two hours per month for three consecutive months. Cardwell complained to Davis Polk’s management about his workload. The firm’s Managing Partner, Defendant Thomas Reid, expressed regret and told Cardwell that Davis Polk had “dropped the ball.” But when Cardwell demanded an explanation, Reid told Cardwell that he would be “out of the game” and “off the field” if he wouldn’t drop the issue. Reid promised that the situation would improve.
It didn’t. Because you are reading this in a legal opinion, you can guess what happened next: Cardwell filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Then Davis Polk fired Cardwell. He sued, alleging a bevy of discrimination and retaliation claims under federal, state, and New York City law.
As to plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, after summarizing the black-letter law, the court applied it to the facts of the case:
Cardwell has not plausibly alleged that he was subjected to an objectively hostile work environment. Cardwell uses the phrase “hostile work environment” only once in his complaint. In that paragraph, he alleges that “Davis Polk and certain defendants’ refusal to not staff [sic] Mr. Cardwell on a[n] M&A deal for the periods of time and manner described in this Complaint constitutes both an adverse employment action and a hostile work environment.” That allegation is insufficient to plausibly allege that Cardwell was subjected to a hostile work environment. True, an allegation that an employee was subjected to a “disproportionately heavy workload” can contribute to a hostile work environment claim. The same logic applies to allegations that a plaintiff received less work than similarly situated coworkers, at least when, as here, the plaintiff alleges that his career prospects suffered because he received less work. But even when considered in the context of the other allegations in the amended complaint, that allegation is inadequate to plausibly allege that Cardwell was subjected to a hostile work environment.
In his opposition, Cardwell points to other allegations in the amended complaint that he argues adequately plead his hostile work environment claim. Cardwell alleges that partners ignored him in the hallways, and that they tried to “get him to assume blame for things that were not incorrect, his fault, or under his control.” He also alleges that Bick told him that Cardwell would be “out of the game” and “off the field” if he did not stop complaining and that he was ultimately fired for making protected complaints.
These allegations do not sufficiently allege that Cardwell’s work environment was objectively hostile. The allegation that partners ignored him in the hallways is insignificant. … The allegation that partners tried to blame Cardwell for mistakes that were not “his fault” is too vague to support a hostile environment claim. And Cardwell’s allegation that he was terminated for making complaints supports Cardwell’s adverse action discrimination claims, not his hostile work environment claim.
In deciding whether Cardwell has adequately alleged that he was subjected to an objectively hostile work environment, the Court has considered all the allegations in the amended complaint. It discusses the inadequacy of the allegations Cardwell points to as specifically supporting his hostile work environment claim in the amended complaint and his opposition only as an illustration. For brevity, the Court will not rehash every allegation in the amended complaint that might plausibly support Cardwell’s hostile work environment claim. But considering all the allegations in the amended complaint collectively (as the Court has), Cardwell has not plausibly alleged that he was subjected to an objectively hostile work environment. Cardwell complains not of severe offensive conduct directed toward him: instead, he complains of conduct that made him feel excluded—fewer emails, no eye-contact in the halls—a kind of social ostracism, or, viewed in the light most favorable to him, a kind of passive-aggressive behavior toward him by other Davis Polk lawyers.
To be sure, some of these allegations—especially the allegation that Cardwell received less work than his peers—might contribute to a hostile work environment claim if coupled with other troublesome conduct. … And the Court can understand why the lack of warmth and outreach in his workplace made Cardwell feel bad, particularly when the alleged social ostracism was combined with a reduction in his work assignments.
But viewing the allegations collectively, Cardwell has inadequately pleaded that his workplace [was] permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that [was] sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [his] employment and create an abusive working environment.
The court concluded that while “Defendants may not have acted in the best possible way to help Cardwell feel included … they did not behave badly in a way that would support a hostile work environment claim.”