Co-Worker’s Racial Epithet Not Imputable to Employer; Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed

In Davenport v. Manual Woodworkers and Weavers, Inc., 2023 WL 3063384 (W.D.N.C. April 24, 2023), the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim.

Among other things, plaintiff (who is African American) alleged that he was subjected to a racial epithet; specifically, that a co-worker called out to him, saying “what’s up my n*****.”

Initially, the court explained that “[w]hile it can be argued that Martinez’s use of the epithet was a grossly misplaced expression of camaraderie, such conduct is sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that it engenders a hostile work environment” and, therefore held that defendant was not entitled to summary judgment on the ground that the alleged conduct was not sufficiently “severe or pervasive.”

However, this was not sufficient; “[t]here also must be some basis for the harassment to be attributed to the employer.”

As to that point, the court explained:

In this case, Davenport’s coworker, Martinez, made the harassing remark. Thus, to hold MWW liable, Davenport must show that MWW “knew, or should have known, about the harassment and failed to take action reasonably calculated to stop it.” Bazemore, 957 F.3d at 201. “A remedial action that effectively stops the harassment will be deemed adequate as a matter of law.” E.E.O.C. v. Xerces Corp., 639 F.3d 658, 670 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Knabe v. Boury Corp., 114, F.3d 407, 411-12 n.8 (3d Cir. 2997)).

Here, after learning of the use of the racial epithet the same day it happened, MWW immediately began an investigation, issued written warnings to all involved, notified those involved that another instance of similar conduct would result in immediate termination, and moved Martinez to a shift away from Davenport. Davenport has not offered any forecast of evidence to indicate that any further use of the epithet, or any similar harassing conduct, continued after MWW took those actions. Accordingly, as the remedial actions effectively stopped the harassment, thus MWW controlled the workplace, and this is adequate as a matter of law. Thus, Davenport’s forecast fails to meet the fourth prong of the hostile-work-environment test.

Based on this, the court held that defendant was entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

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