“Work Ethic” Comment Did Not Support Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim

In Brown v. Port Authority Transit Corporation, et al, Civil Action No. 22-3199, 2023 WL 4747678 (E.D.Pa. July 24, 2023), the court, inter alia, granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

The court summarized the elements of such a claim in the Third Circuit, namely:

  1. the employee suffered intentional discrimination because of his/her race,
  2. the discrimination was severe or pervasive,
  3. the discrimination detrimentally affected the plaintiff
  4. the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances, and
  5. the existence of respondeat superior liability, i.e., that the employer is responsible.

The court marched through elements one through four, as follows:

For the first element, Plaintiff provides no evidence beyond Plaintiff’s own conclusory statements that his colleagues’ complaints were intentionally made because of Plaintiff’s race. Instead, the statements’ contents, as alleged, solely concerned floor assignments and Plaintiff’s “work ethic.” To infer that such statements truly concerned Plaintiff’s race would be an impermissible leap of reasoning for this Court. While Plaintiff’s failure to plead facts that plausibly suggest Defendants are liable for the first prong of a hostile work environment is alone sufficient to dismiss Plaintiff’s claim, this Court will nevertheless assess Plaintiff’s pleading of the other elements of a hostile work environment claim.

For the second element, Plaintiff provides no evidence that his colleagues’ statements—if considered “discrimination”—were “severe or pervasive.” When assessing whether a hostile work environment is present, “analysis must concentrate not on individual incidents, but on the overall scenario.” Taken both individually and in their totality, the alleged statements, which solely concerned work assignments and Plaintiff’s work ethic, are not sufficiently severe to establish a hostile work environment.

For the third element, Plaintiff does not provide evidence beyond conclusory statements that he was “detrimentally affected” by his colleagues’ statements. Although Plaintiff claims he experienced “emotional distress and mental anguish” and describes his colleagues’ statements as “evil,” Plaintiff presented no evidence that he suffered any psychological distress, that his ability to perform his job was impaired, or that he suffered financially as a result of the statements.

Similarly, for the fourth element, this Court disagrees that an objectively reasonable person in similar circumstances would be offended by the alleged incidents. As described above, the statements were made by members of the same race as Plaintiff and did not mention Plaintiff’s race at all. Plaintiff provides no evidence beyond conclusory statements to suggest that his colleagues’ comments were truly about Plaintiff’s race, and it is not for this Court to find such implications where none have been alleged.

[Cleaned up.]

Based on this, the court held that plaintiff did not allege sufficient facts to plausibly demonstrate that Plaintiff meets each element to establish a hostile work environment under § 1981.

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