Noose Incident Insufficient to Survive Summary Judgment on Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim

Employment discrimination claims are often difficult to assert, since it is not necessarily true that every wrong visited upon an employee will give rise to an actionable legal claim.

Consider, for example, an African American employee’s discovery of a “noose” – either made out of a rope or fashioned out of work materials – in their work area.

This was what the plaintiff in a recent case, Lemonia v. Westlake Management Services, Inc., No. 2:20-CV-01593, 2022 WL 4350336 (W.D.La. Sept. 19, 2022), alleged happened.

Unfortunately, this plaintiff loses; his case dismissed on summary judgment. The court explained:

Plaintiff has alleged that he was exposed to a hostile work environment on account of his race, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.3 To establish a prima facie case of a hostile work environment, a plaintiff must show the following: (1) he belongs to a protected group, (2) he was subject to unwelcome harassment, (3) the complained-of harassment was due to his membership in a protected group (e.g., due to his race), (4) the harassment complained of affected a term, condition, or privilege of his employment, and (5) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment but failed to take prompt remedial action. Mendoza v. Helicopter, 548 F. App’x 127, 128–29 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Ramsey v. Henderson, 286 F.3d 264, 268 (5th Cir. 2002)).

Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim centers on the noose incident.4 Westlake moves for summary judgment based on his inability to meet his burden on the fourth or fifth elements. On the severity element, an employer violates Title VII “[w]hen the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). Because Title VII is “only meant to bar conduct that is so severe [or] pervasive that it destroys a protected class member’s opportunity to succeed in the workplace,” courts have set a high standard for determining what constitutes a hostile work environment. Lewis v. M7 Prods., LLC, 427 F.Supp.3d 705, 720 (M.D. La. 2019) (internal quotation omitted). The conduct must be both subjectively and objectively offensive, meaning that the victim perceived the environment as hostile or abusive and that a reasonable person would do likewise. E.E.O.C. v. WC&M Enters., Inc., 496 F.3d 393, 399 (5th Cir. 2007). Courts examine such a claim based on the totality of the circumstances, looking to the frequency and severity of the conduct, whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it “unreasonably [interfered] with an employee’s work performance.” Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 347 (5th Cir. 2007). “No single factor is determinative.” WC&M Enters., Inc., 496 F.3d at 399. “[I]solated incidents, if egregious, can alter the terms and conditions of employment.” Harvill v. Westward Comms., LLC, 433 F.3d 428, 434 (5th Cir. 2005) (emphasis added).

District courts in the Fifth Circuit, while treating a noose in the workplace as a severe and troubling matter, have found that a single, isolated incident is not severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment and thereby create a working environment so abusive that an actionable hostile work environment claim can be found under Title VII.” Morris v. Pellerin Milnor Corp., 2018 WL 1726257, at *9 (E.D. La. Apr. 10, 2018); accord Davis v. Ochsner Med. Ctr., 2016 WL 1383638, at *3–*4 (E.D. La. Apr. 7, 2016); see also Brooks v. Firestone Polymers, LLC, 70 F.Supp.3d 816, 821 (E.D. Tex. 2014) (collecting cases); cf. Berry v. Texas Women’s Univ., 528 F.Supp.3d 579, 610 (E.D. Tex. 2021) (distinguishing a case where noose remained on display and plaintiff’s supervisor joked about it). While other cases have also emphasized the plaintiff’s failure to complain, “the single appearance of what appeared to plaintiff to be a noose … without any previous or subsequent instances of overtly racial harassment or discrimination, falls far short of establishing an actionable hostile work environment claim[.]” Morris, 2018 WL 1726257 at *10.

Based on this, the court concluded that plaintiff was unable to meet the fourth element of the claim, entitling defendant to summary judgment.

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