Hostile Work Environment Claims Survive Dismissal; Carrying of Weapons Factored Into Decision

In Brown v. Ferrara Candy Company, No. 22 CV 04875, 2023 WL 6519973 (N.D.Ill. Oct. 5, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim of (race or sexual orientation based) hostile work environment asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

The key allegation supporting this conclusion is that Kornfiend made threatening or racially hostile remarks to Brown while carrying a gun and a knife, and that Ferrara failed to respond. While “[o]ffhand comments, isolated incidents, and simple teasing do not rise to the level of conduct that ‘alters the terms and conditions of employment,’ for a hostile work environment claim,” Scruggs v. Garst Seed Co., 587 F.3d 832, 840-41 (7th Cir. 2009), the fact that Kornfiend made harassing remarks to Brown while armed with a gun and knife changes the calculus. Harassing comments made while carrying a weapon in close physical proximity (an 8×8 foot workspace) to the plaintiff are plausibly both “severe” and “physically threatening.” See Harris, 510 U.S. at 23; see also Gomez v. City of Chi., No. 16 C 7743, 2017 WL 131565, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 13, 2017) (allegations that coworker acted in a threatening manner with a knife supported plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim); Tolbert v. Dave Miller Olds, Inc., No. 98 C 5312, 2000 WL 655958, at *4 (N.D. Ill. May 19, 2000) (allegations that plaintiff felt threatened by coworker because “he bragged about carrying a gun and having a license to kill” and because “he had in fact shown her the gun on one occasion” supported hostile work environment claim). Moreover, this was not a one-time occurrence—Brown alleges that he was harassed “daily, in person and online,” and “whenever” Kornfiend came to the office. R. 20 ¶¶ 36–37. Brown also asserts that Kornfiend’s actions negatively impacted his work by creating a “highly stress[ful], scary environment.” R. 25 at 5. Based on these assertions, Brown has plausibly alleged severe race or sex-based harassment.

The court noted that defendant “cites no case law for the proposition that a plaintiff must specifically allege exactly what was said to him at the pleading stage,” and distinguished cases cited by defendant in which the courts found that the alleged harassment was insufficiently severe as a matter of law, noting that “none of these cases involve allegations of racist or anti-gay remarks directed toward the plaintiff by an individual who was wielding a weapon.”

It also rejected defendant’s argument that the “fact that Kornfiend carried a gun and knife at work cannot constitute harassment of Brown because Kornfiend would have carried those items around other employees as well,” noting that this was “not a fair reading of the allegations in the amended complaint” since plaintiff alleged that plaintiff “was harassed by [ ] Kornfiend with a gun and knife,” that Kornfiend made “racial, political, and radical comments” to Brown, and that Kornfiend stated “that he disliked gays[ ] and blacks.”

Interpreting these allegations in the light most favorable to plaintiff, held the court, indicates that the alleged harassment plausibly had “a racial character or purpose” and therefore were sufficient to state a claim.

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