Sex-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Dismissed, Notwithstanding Alleged “Unwanted Personal Questions”

In Romano v. A360 Media, LLC, No. 1:20-cv-08988-LTS-OTW, 2023 WL 348459 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2023), the court, inter alia, granted defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint alleging a sex-based hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

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

A hostile work environment exists under Title VII or the NYSHRL when an employee faces discriminatory harassment that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment. In other words, such conditions exist when the workplace was so severely permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that the terms and conditions of her employment were thereby altered. To meet this threshold, a plaintiff must demonstrate either that a single incident was extraordinarily severe, or that a series of incidents were sufficiently continuous and concerted to have altered the conditions of her working environment. It is axiomatic that, in order to show a hostile work environment, the plaintiff “must demonstrate that the conduct occurred because of” her protected characteristic. The hostile work environment standard under the NYCHRL is somewhat more relaxed, and less egregious conduct than that required under Title VII may support a hostile work environment claim. However, even under the NYCHRL a petty, slight, or trivial inconvenience is not actionable, and a plaintiff must still establish that she suffered a hostile work environment because of her gender. Isolated incidents of unwelcome verbal and physical conduct have been found to constitute the type of petty slights and trivial inconveniences that are not actionable even under the more liberal NYCHRL standard. [Cleaned up.]

Here, plaintiff alleged that the certain defendants created a hostile work environment “by asking her unwanted questions about her personal life and her plans on the weekends, making her feel uncomfortable, treating her poorly, and fostering a sexist environment at AMI” and “summarily alleges that she was treated differently in the workplace because of her sex.”

The court disagreed, holding that these “conclusory allegations” were insufficient to plausibly state a claim even under the City Law’s relatively liberal standard.

Specifically, it noted that plaintiff neither “alleged facts suggesting that matters of which she complains were anything more than isolated incidents of unwelcome verbal conduct” nor “proffered facts that could support an inference that her supervisors’ actions occurred because of her gender,” noting, for example, that she did not allege “that only female or disabled employees were asked unwanted personal questions.”

Although the court dismissed her hostile work environment claim against these defendants, it granted her leave to move to replead (i.e., file an amended complaint).

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