Mandatory Trainings Using Terms Such as “White Fragility” & “White Supremacy” Did Not Give Rise to Hostile Work Environment Claim, Court Holds

In a recent decision, Young v. Colorado Department of Corrections et al, No. 22-cv-00145-NYW-KLM, 2023 WL 1437894 (D.Colo. Feb. 1, 2023), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Generally, in order to prevail on a hostile work environment claim (under Title VII), a plaintiff must demonstrate that the objectionable conduct was (1) “severe” or “pervasive”, and (2) because of a protected characteristic.

In this case, the plaintiff argued that he was subjected to a hostile work environment based on the content of mandatory training sessions that allegedly “made sweeping negative generalizations regarding individuals who are white, and other gross generalizations about members of other racial demographics.”

After determining that the alleged harassment was not plausibly alleged to be “pervasive,” the court turned to its analysis of the “severe” prong:

Mr. Young also argues that the alleged harassment was severe. [A]n isolated incident may suffice if the conduct is severe and threatening. But the bar to establish a hostile work environment based on an isolated incident remains very high. [C]ourts have required the conduct to be especially egregious or extreme where only isolated incidents are alleged. Most incidents found to meet this standard involve some kind of physical assault. The Tenth Circuit has suggested, however, that a single incident may be sufficiently severe if it involves the use of an unambiguous racial epithet.

Here, Plaintiff alleges that he participated in diversity training that was “based upon” a glossary of terms that included terms such as “white exceptionalism,” “white fragility,” and “white supremacy.” [T]he objective severity of the harassment from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position, considering all the circumstances. These terms are objectively not unambiguously racial epithet[s] that could support a conclusion that a single incident—or a single training—was so serious or severe so as to establish a hostile work environment. Courts can and often do look to historical context when evaluating conduct alleged to have created a hostile work environment. While Plaintiff himself construes the challenged terms to imply that “all whites are racist,” [t]he mere utterance of a statement which engenders offensive feelings in an employee would not affect the conditions of employment to a sufficiently significant degree to violate Title VII. The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to allege facts plausibly establishing a work environment that was so severe that it alter[ed] the conditions of [his] employment and create[ed] an abusive working environment. See Vitt v. City of Cincinnati, 250 F. Supp. 2d 885, 887 (S.D. Ohio 2002), aff’d, 97 F. App’x 634 (6th Cir. 2004) (where the plaintiff alleged, inter alia, that her supervisor told her that “[a]ll white people are prejudiced, it’s just subconscious with some,” affirming grant of summary judgment on hostile work environment claim upon concluding that the plaintiff failed to establish prima facie elements of claim).

[Cleaned up; citations omitted; some parentheticals remain.]

The court concluded that, for these reasons, plaintiff has not stated a hostile work environment claim under Title VII.

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