National Origin Discrimination Claim, Based on Alleged “Mimicking” and “Caricaturing” Iranian Background and Accent, Survives Dismissal

In Heavans v. Dodaro, No. 22-836 (BAH), 2022 WL 17904237 (D.D.C. Dec. 23, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim of discrimination based on his national origin (Iranian), but not his sex.

With respect to the issue of whether the alleged offending conduct constitutes an actionable “adverse employment action,” the court explained:

Plaintiff does allege certain actions that undoubtedly affected the terms, conditions, or privileges of his job at GAO. Most notably, the revocation of his flexible work schedule and eventual reassignment to a different department in a non-managerial position are inarguably major changes to the conditions of his employment. Defendant does not seriously contest this. Plaintiff’s allegation that Austin “announced” that he would be “excluded from all future LC management meetings,” also qualifies. Plaintiff had been attending those meetings since 2016 and was the only director now excluded, such that this announcement plainly effected a notable alteration to the terms of his employment, with a public demotion of his standing in LC’s leadership team. Similarly, Austin’s near-simultaneous transfer of an employee who had been reporting directly to plaintiff is alleged to have had the effect of “remov[ing] the Plaintiff’s management responsibilities on [a] project that he had led for the past four years,” and as such can be said to have affected the conditions of his employment. [Cleaned up.]

Next, the court explains why plaintiff did not sufficiently allege discriminatory animus based on his sex:

Having established that plaintiff sufficiently alleged several adverse employment actions, however, does not end the matter. Plaintiff must also adequately allege a causal connection between those adverse actions and his national origin or sex. Here, his sex discrimination claim falters. Plaintiff relies primarily on conclusory assertions that Austin “subject[ed] him to greater scrutiny than his female peers,” and “unlawfully discriminated against Plaintiff based on his sex” when she took the adverse actions against him. Such threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice at the pleading stage and cannot sustain plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim. The only specific factual bases plaintiff provides to establish that these decisions were made based on plaintiff’s sex are that plaintiff was one of only two men on a team of mostly women, his supervisors were women, Austin complained on several occasions about a “man” who had made her life difficult, and that a female employee eventually took over some of plaintiff’s former job duties. These allegations border on entirely innocuous and fall far short of establishing that plaintiff was plausibly discriminated against based on his gender. [Cleaned up.]

His national origin discrimination claim, however, found “substantially firmer footing.” Specifically:

Plaintiff’s claim for discrimination based on his national origin finds substantially firmer footing. Those allegations include several specific instances of Austin drawing attention to, overtly criticizing, and most egregiously, “mimick[ing] and caricatur[ing]” plaintiff’s Iranian background and accent, with these incidents occurring regularly throughout the time period narrated by the Complaint. Taken together, these allegations give rise to a plausible inference that Austin was motivated at least in part by her demonstrated animus towards plaintiff’s national origin in taking the adverse employment actions against him. Indeed, defendant does not contest that plaintiff plausibly alleges a causal connection between his mistreatment and his national origin. [Cleaned up.]

While these allegations supported a claim of national origin discrimination, they did not, as the court explained further down in its decision, support a plausible claim of a hostile work environment (based on either his sex or his national origin).mick

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