Race-Based Hostile Work Environment, Based on an Alleged “Series of Hateful Workplace Encounters,” Sufficiently Alleged

In Laurent-Workman v. Wormuth, No. 21-1766, 2022 WL 17256701 (4th Cir. Nov. 29, 2022), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, inter alia, vacated a lower court order dismissing plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

The district court concluded that Laurent-Workman’s complaint set forth insufficient factual allegations to support a hostile work environment claim. It found Laurent-Workman’s allegations too “sporadic” and explained that “the types of personnel actions, reviews, workplace conflicts and work assignments” she alleged were neither severe enough nor related enough to her protected characteristics. J.A. 94–97. The Army urges us to affirm that conclusion because her allegations did not include racial slurs or physical threats, mostly describe conduct by Adams who occupied a different duty location, and did not occur daily.

Even though they do not depict daily misconduct, Laurent-Workman’s allegations demonstrate a series of hateful workplace encounters that consistently targeted her racial identity. She alleges that “[a]t an early point working together, Ms. Adams made a racially insensitive comment to Ms. Laurent-Workman and others that ‘blacks cannot speak properly.’ ” J.A. 13. At one point, Adams “erupted in anger and said this is NATO, we do things differently than ‘you people,’ ” and hurled accusations at Laurent-Workman as she attempted to retreat to her office. J.A. 16. According to Laurent-Workman, on several prior occasions “Adams had referred to African-American/Black soldiers as ‘these people,’ and further stated she could not understand African-Americans/Blacks.” Id. And during a meeting held ostensibly to clarify Laurent-Workman and Adams’s duties, Laurent-Workman claims that Adams again mocked her, referred to her as “you people,” and “abruptly stood-up in a violent fashion causing her chair to crash into the wall, screamed at Ms. Laurent-Workman and stormed out of the room.” J.A. 22. She also alleges that her direct supervisor Khalifeh announced his belief that Black male athletes “excel” in sports “because the slave masters had bred the strongest slaves together.” J.A. 19. The repeat behavior of her coworker and supervisor was neither isolated nor a symptom of trite differences. See Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 115, 122 S.Ct. 2061, 153 L.Ed.2d 106 (2002) (“Hostile environment claims … [by their] very nature involve[ ] repeated conduct.”).

We disagree with the district court’s contrary reasoning and the Army’s endorsement of that position on appeal. Of course, “continuous daily” exposure to racial slurs is both severe and pervasive. But daily hostility is not the essence of a Title VII harassment claim. Our focus remains on the discriminatory character, severity, and consistency of the harassment.

Laurent-Workman’s allegations describe just the sort of workplace behaviors that Title VII serves to root out—repeated invectives of an overtly racial tenor. Adams’s statements to Laurent-Workman that Adams could not understand African Americans because they cannot speak properly communicated racial enmity by summoning an odious trope about African American speech patterns. Even more demeaning, Khalifeh’s comment connecting the abuses of chattel slavery to athletes of African descent callously evoked the very history of racial violence, brutality, and subordination on which the most execrable epithets prey. Laurent-Workman endured a breadth of publicly humiliating comments from Adams on several occasions, some of which accompanied an element of physical intimidation. Khalifeh not only knew of Adams’s racial hostility, but further entrenched it with his own vile remark.

[Cleaned up.]

Considering these circumstances, the court held that plaintiff pled a plausible claim for a race-based hostile work environment “above the speculative level.”

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