Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed; Hair Comments and Touching (While Troubling) Was Not Actionable Under Title VII

A recent decision, Carroll v. Amazon Data Services, Inc., No. 1:21-cv-01177 (RDA/TCB), 2022 WL 3161895 (E.D. Va. Aug. 8, 2022), illustrates that even workplace conduct that is, by most measures, unpleasant does not necessarily give rise to an actionable “hostile work environment” claim that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

Plaintiff’s allegations regarding her supervisor’s critiques of her hair, although obviously unwelcomed and provocative, do not rise to the level of race-based or sex-based harassment that is protected under Title VII. While Plaintiff notes in the Complaint that she would style her afro-textured hair in a manner that permitted her bump cap to fit “securely,” the Complaint notes that McMahon’s criticisms focused upon her wearing it “properly.” Dkt. 1 ¶¶ 61-62. At face value, these allegations plausibly suggest a supervisor ensuring employee compliance with company policy. See Bass, 324 F.3d at 765 (holding that “callous behavior by [a plaintiff’s] superiors” is insufficient “to state a hostile work environment claim”). While Plaintiff contends that her white male coworkers did not receive the same criticisms regarding their bump caps from McMahon, comparing the lack of criticism of coworkers alone is insufficient to establish a plausible basis for believing race or sex was the true basis for McMahon’s critiques.3

Plaintiff also fails to allege any specific nexus between the alleged hair touching and her protected status, leaving the Court to draw inferences as to how Plaintiff intends to satisfy the second prong of the hostile work environment claim. The Court is not obligated to “fill in the gaps” as to the basis for alleged discriminatory behavior. Bing v. Brivo Sys., LLC, 959 F.3d 605, 618 (4th Cir. 2020), cert. denied, 141 S. Ct. 1376 (2021). Although Plaintiff has generally alleged that she was harassed because of her status as an African American and as a woman, these are conclusory allegations pleaded without factual support.

Plaintiff’s allegations also do not clear the “high bar” for alleging sufficiently severe or pervasive workplace harassment under Title VII. See E.E.O.C. v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 521 F.3d 306, 315 (4th Cir. 2008). The Court has considered the totality of the circumstances in determining that the workplace conduct Plaintiff experienced, and although they were provocative and potentially offensive were not sufficiently severe or pervasive, when assessed by: (1) frequency; (2) severity; (3) whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, or merely an offensive utterance; and (4) whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s work performance. See Okoli v. City of Baltimore, 648 F.3d 216, 222 (4th Cir. 2011).

Plaintiff’s allegations as to her coworkers’ touching of her hair, while troubling, and obviously not the best management of the workplace environment, fail to establish the amount of factual detail as to frequency and severity that is required to satisfy the severe and pervasive prong of a hostile work environment claim. In support of her allegations Plaintiff notes only that Alfred “continuously” touched her hair, Dkt. 1 ¶ 21, on “many separate occasions,” Dkt. 13 at 14. Failure to plead at least modest details that would allow the Court to assess the frequency and severity of allegedly harassing conduct can warrant dismissal of a hostile work environment claim. See, e.g., Jones v. HCA, 16 F. Supp. 3d 622, 630-31 (E.D. Va. 2014) (dismissing hostile work environment claim where plaintiff failed to plead any specific allegations that could “shed any light into [the] severity or frequency” of the allegedly harassing conduct); see also Skipper v. Giant Foods, Inc., 68 F. App’x 393, 399 (4th Cir. 2003) (holding plaintiff’s daily exposure to racist graffiti in the workplace and vague allegations of using racial epithets was insufficient to substantiate a hostile work environment claim because of the lack of specificity as to context, frequency, and how the hostile act altered the terms and conditions of their employment). Without pleading additional detail as to the specifics of actions by Plaintiff’s coworker, Plaintiff fails to push the allegation over the line from inappropriate workplace conduct to actionable harassment. See Wilson v. Gaston Cty., 685 F. App’x 193, 200 (4th Cir. 2017) (holding hair-pulling by a colleague to be workplace behavior that “falls short” of harassment).

Nor do Plaintiff’s allegations of increased criticism, unfavorable job assignments, and a PIP necessarily amount to creating a hostile work environment. Workplaces are not always harmonious, and the Fourth Circuit has made clear that employment laws are not intended to govern minor workplace disagreements or personality conflicts between coworkers. See Sunbelt, 521 F.3d 315; see also Mustafa v. Iancu, 313 F. Supp. 3d 684, 695 (E.D. Va. 2018) (“Title VII does not create a general civility code in the workplace.” (quoting Mosby-Grant v. City of Hagerstown, 630 F.3d 326, 335 (4th Cir. 2010))). More specifically, courts have held that alleged nitpicking, micromanaging, unfavorable job assignments, and pretextual write-ups are insufficient to create a hostile work environment. See, e.g., Guillen v. Esper, No. 1:19-CV-1206, 2020 WL 3965007, at *14 (E.D. Va. July 13, 2017) (finding that plaintiff’s allegations of “nitpicking,” personality conflicts, disliked assignments, and generalized workplace grievances could not establish that the issues were based on plaintiff’s protected characteristic and were not enough to state a hostile work environment claim).

The court concluded by noting that while it was “in no way condoning what appear to be dispiriting workplace conditions for Plaintiff, the conduct she alleges in support of her hostile work environment claim does not rise to the demanding level of a Title VII violation” and, accordingly, dismissed that count without prejudice.

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