Race, Religion-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Survive Summary Judgment; Evidence Included Threat to “Hang” Plaintiff

In Achee v. Incorporated Village of Valley Stream et al, No. 20-cv-5294, 2023 WL 7130717 (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 30, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the New York State Human Rights Law.

After summarizing the black-letter law, the court applied it to the facts as follows:

Based upon the record before me, Mr. Achee has set forth sufficient evidence of racial and religious harassment such that a reasonable jury could find that the conditions of his employment were altered and that the incidents he proffers created an abusive working environment. The Second Circuit’s recent analysis in Banks is particularly instructive. In Banks, the plaintiff, who identifies as an African American woman, experienced various forms of discrimination by her coworkers, including racial slurs and repeated displays of racist symbols in her workplace. In particular, the Court focused on plaintiff’s coworkers’ display of nooses near the workstations of black employees in her workplace. Citing the history of the noose as a symbol of racial violence, the Second Circuit concluded that, “[a] reasonable jury could find that even a single placement of this object — imbued as it is with historical gravity as a symbol and tool of actual violence — directly at the workstation of a Black employee could amount to severe conduct sufficient to support an inference that the workplace is hostile to Black employees.” Banks, 81 F.4th at 265. The Court also recognized that “perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as ‘n****r.’ ” Id. at 266 (quoting Rivera v. Rochester Genesee Reg’l Transp. Auth., 743 F.3d 11, 24 (2d Cir. 2014)).

Mr. Achee has therefore clearly met the objective standard for a hostile work environment. Defendants’ argument that the racist statements made to Mr. Achee were not sufficiently frequent is unavailing and ignores the increasing severity of the comments, which escalated into threats of physical violence couched in racial terms. Under Banks, Mr. Caracciolo’s statement that his white coworkers would assist in hanging Mr. Achee, combined with his showing Mr. Achee an image of a noose is, on its own, sufficiently severe to cause a reasonable person to consider the Valley Stream Parks Department a hostile work environment.

Mr. Achee has also met the subjective standard. Defendants’ argument that Mr. Achee was not “offended” by his coworkers’ statements is not persuasive and mischaracterizes his testimony. Though Plaintiff stated that he tried not to let these statements bother him, Plaintiff testified that he nevertheless was offended by the racial slurs and that these threats caused mental anguish and symptoms of depression. Achee Dep. 168:15–169:24. Defendants point to Mr. Achee’s letters from 2014 stating that he enjoyed working in the Department as evidence to the contrary. But these letters pre-date the most serious incidents by several years and do not eliminate the factual issue that Mr. Achee’s testimony raises.

Having established that a jury could find that his coworkers’ behavior created an objectively and subjectively hostile work environment, Plaintiff must establish a basis for imputing this conduct to his employer. Plaintiff states that he complained to his supervisors on multiple occasions, but that they ignored him. Specifically, Plaintiff states that, after Mr. Caracciolo showed him a noose on his phone and threatened to hang him, he “complained to Mr. Torres and Ms. Werbeck that these kinds of comments were racist, but they ignored me and nothing changed.” Achee Dec. ¶24. Defendants deny that Plaintiff ever complained to his supervisors and argue that these are “baseless assertions.” Reply at 10. But resolving these two accounts presents factual questions for a jury. Viewing the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, as I am required to do at this stage, such allegations are sufficient to impute the objectionable conduct to Defendants. Feingold, 366 F.3d at 152.

Based on this, the court held that denial of defendants’ motion was warranted.

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