Hostile Work Environment Claims, Based on Comments Embodying “Tropes” of Plaintiff’s Status as a Chinese Man, Dismissed

In Qin v. Vertex, Inc., No. 20-2423-JMY2022 WL 10493574 (E.D.Pa. Oct. 18, 2022), the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

From the decision:

In this case, Plaintiff’s showing of a hostile work environment stem in part from the three comments made by his coworkers—Bob Norton (“why don’t you go back to China if the technology is so advanced?”), John Hart (“cultural differences” informed feedback in performance review), and other unidentified individuals (calling Plaintiff “China Man” over the years)—and comments made in his performance review that were based on stereotypical tropes and generalizations of Plaintiff as a Chinese man. (Pl. Mem. of Law in Opp. to Def. Mot. for Summ. J., pp. 51-52, ECF No. 35.) As previously described, these offhanded and isolated comments are not sufficient to establish a hostile work environment claim. In fact, the Eastern District held in a similar action that “[t]he three arguably race-based incidents or comments in the summary judgment record, taken together, fail to establish a severe or pervasive hostile work environment attributable to Defendant.” Hunter v. Trustees of Univ. of Pennsylvania, No. CV 20-2334, 2021 WL 1424710, at *8 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 15, 2021). In that case, one comment included a critique of the plaintiff’s demeanor that relied on a racial trope about angry Black women. Id. Another comment involved calling the plaintiff “low,” “low down dirty,” and “nothing.” Id. The Eastern District concluded that “[a] reasonable jury could not conclude from two isolated incidents involving racial stereotypes, two years apart, and only one of which is attributable to a supervisory employee, that Plaintiff was subjected to a racially hostile work environment.” Id. Relatedly, the Eastern District has not been keen on crediting or classifying facially neutral comments as direct evidence of a hostile work environment. See, e.g., Alers v. City of Philadelphia, 919 F. Supp. 2d 528, 546 (E.D. Pa. 2013) (“Plaintiffs admit there is no direct evidence of hostile comments based on their race or ethnicity, and instead rely on only a handful of underwhelming, facially neutral incidents to purport a hostile work environment.”).

The court concluded by noting that plaintiff’s “assertion of isolated comments about his national origin and race and alleged indirect tropes, stereotypes, and generalizations within his performance review—none of which came from a supervisory employee—similarly could not lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Plaintiff had been subject to a hostile work environment.”

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