Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Survive Dismissal; Allegations Included Reference to “Offensive” Hair

In Onely v. Redner’s Markets, Inc., No. 21-4785, 2022 WL 1773606 (E.D.Pa. June 1, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

From the decision:

After disregarding legal conclusions, the facts supporting Plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim may be summarized as follows: (1) at the Lansdale location, Goodman “consistently” made racially offensive comments to Plaintiff, talked down to her, and treated her rudely and condescendingly;9 (2) Goodman did not treat non-black colleagues this way; (3) the environment created by Goodman affected her to the point that she “jumped at the opportunity” to transfer to a different store, even though it was “much further from her house”; (4) at the Audubon location, McGrory told another black employee that she had to change her “offensive” hair; (5) McGrory said that she believed that the high-profile deaths of two black people “should have” happened or were “justified” because of a purported connection to drugs; and, (7) Plaintiff was one of two black employees within the meat department at the Lansdale location and the only black employee in the meat department at the Audubon location.

Hostile work environment is a theory of liability designed to remedy “the cumulative effect of a thousand cuts” and acts “which are not individually actionable … may be aggregated to make out a hostile work environment claim.” O’Connor v. City of Newark, 440 F.3d 125, 127-28 (3d Cir. 2006). Goodman allegedly treated Plaintiff so poorly compared to non-black employees, and with such consistency, that she was willing to transfer to a location much further from her home to escape him. McGrory’s comment that a black employee’s hair was “offensive” could reasonably be viewed as a race-based insult. And McGrory’s characterization of the deaths of two black people as “justified” or something that “should have” happened—a view McGrory chose to express to Plaintiff, the only black employee in the department—could reasonably be considered not only offensive, but threatening.

Although it is questionable whether these incidents are severe enough to alone constitute discrimination, when considered as a whole, they form a series of events that allegedly occurred “consistently” throughout Plaintiff’s time of employment and which, cumulatively, permit a reasonable inference that Plaintiff suffered intentional discrimination that was either severe or pervasive “because of her race.” At the motion to dismiss stage, these factual allegations suffice to state a claim for a race-based hostile work environment.

While the court permitted plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim to proceed, it dismissed plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim asserted under the Americans with Disabilities Act since she failed to allege that her “serious health conditions” limited her activities.

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