Hostile Work Environment Dismissal Affirmed; Conduct, Though Unpleasant, Was Too Sparse to be Actionable

In Myers v. Inspector Mary Christine Doherty et al, 2022 WL 4477050 (2d Cir. Sept. 27, 2022), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal (for failure to state a claim) of plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (the analysis of which parallels the evaluation of a claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

The court summarized the “black letter” law as follows:

The plausibility standard for a hostile work environment claim has an objective and a subjective component: a plaintiff must plead facts that would tend to show that the complained of conduct is objectively severe or pervasive—that is, creates an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive and creates an environment that the plaintiff subjectively perceives as hostile or abusive. A court evaluating such a claim must consider the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. Incidents of harassment must be more than episodic; they must be sufficiently continuous and concerted in order to be deemed pervasive. A complaint must allege facts plausibly showing that the plaintiff “was faced with harassment of such quality or quantity that a reasonable employee would find the conditions of her employment altered for the worse. [Cleaned up.]

Applying the law, the court held that the comments alleged to comprise a hostile work environment “were too sparse, and the totality of Defendants’ conduct was more akin to the unpleasant behavior alleged in cases” where the Second Circuit found that no hostile work environment claim was present.

Specifically, the court held that this case was more analogous to cases like Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297 (2d Cir. 2015) (declining to find HWE where plaintiff alleged defendant made negative statements, spoke to plaintiff in harsh tones, physically distanced herself from plaintiff, declined meetings with plaintiff, replaced plaintiff in meetings, wrongfully reprimanded plaintiff, and increased plaintiff’s reporting responsibilities), than to cases where the court sustained such a claim, such as Whidbee v. Garzarelli Food Specialties, Inc., 223 F.3d 62 (2d Cir. 2000) (HWE claim survived summary judgment where plaintiff alleged a stream of racially offensive comments over the span of two to three months, including a physically threatening comment with racial overtones); Snell v. Suffolk County, 782 F.2d 1094, 1097–98, 1101, 1104 (2d Cir. 1986) (claim survived summary judgment where plaintiffs alleged “virtual barrage of racially offensive slurs and demeaning epithets,” coupled with proliferation of demeaning literature as well as cartoons and photographs depicting the KKK); and Patterson v. County of Oneida, 375 F.3d 206 (2d Cir. 2004) (totality of the circumstances included not just defendants’ refusal to acknowledge the plaintiff, but also defendants’ alleged operation of an elite, all-white unit for which black officers were ineligible and that routinely engaged in “Nazi-like” and racist behavior).

This case teaches that the determination of whether a hostile work environment claim is plausibly alleged is a highly fact-dependent inquiry where all of the facts and circumstances must be considered in totality, rather than in isolation.

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