Age/Gender-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims “Barely” Survive Dismissal

In Smith v. CHR Medical Corporation et al, No. 3:22-cv-00743, 2023 WL 3065220 (M.D. Tenn. April 24, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims alleged under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (based on gender) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (based on age).

After summarizing the black-letter law governing hostile work environment claims, the court proceeded to apply it to the facts:

The plaintiff alleges that, “[t]hroughout her employment,” Kreger made “off-color comments about her age,” “verbally abused her,” made sexist and ageist comments in her presence, and asked her when she planned to retire. (Doc. No. 20 ¶¶ 45–46.) In addition, following her demotion in February 2018, Shah and Kreger allegedly “treated her differently and regularly belittled her at work” and excluded her from senior management meetings and dinners, and Shah regularly refused to attend weekly meetings with her and committee meetings she chaired, including in late 2019 and 2020. (Id. ¶¶ 47–50.) In addition to these ongoing issues that, together, would not qualify as discrete, discriminatory acts, the plaintiff also alleges that she was treated differently from younger and/or male employees when she was denied permission to relocate and to work remotely, denied the opportunity for a promotion, and demoted. The plaintiff states that all of this conduct was “unwelcome.”

The plaintiff’s wholly conclusory assertions that the unwelcome conduct was based on her gender and/or age and was “severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider CRH a hostile or abusive work environment” (id. ¶¶ 51–52) are not the type of “facts” to which the court is required to give much credence. In addition, the law is clear that a few offensive utterances, even if they reference protected characteristics, will not be enough to create an objectively hostile working environment. See, e.g., Crawford, 96 F.3d at 836 (“[I]t seems obvious that the ADEA was not intended to remedy minor social slights and the resulting hurt feelings.”). Nonetheless, the court finds that the plaintiff’s allegations, construed as true and viewed collectively in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, are just barely sufficient to nudge the claims over the line between mere possibility and plausibility, under Iqbal and Twombly. Broadly construed, the allegations give rise to a reasonable inference that the conduct at issue was “severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive and [that the plaintiff] subjectively regard[ed] that environment as abusive,” Bowman, 220 F.3d at 463, for purposes of stating a hostile work environment claim based on age and/or gender.

Furthermore, the court explained, “[b]ecause at least some of the alleged conduct took place within the limitations period, the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims are not facially time-barred.”

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