Title VII Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Dismissal Affirmed; “Boy” and “You People” Comments Deemed Insufficient in This Case

In Price v. Valvoline, LLC, 2023 WL 8664627 (5th Cir. 2023), the court, inter alia, affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In sum, the court held that defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment due to his repeated absenteeism (and thus affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s race discrimination claim; not addressed in this blog post’s summary), and that “the allegedly race-motivated comments directed towards him were not objectively severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.”

As to the latter, the court explained:

To establish a Title VII hostile work environment violation, Price was required to show that he was subjected to “unwelcome harassment … based on race” that “affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment,” and that Valvoline “knew or should have known of the harassment in question and failed to take prompt remedial action.” Hernandez v. Yellow Transp., Inc., 670 F.3d 644, 651 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Ramsey v. Henderson, 286 F.3d 264, 268 (5th Cir. 2002)). Here, the dispositive question is whether any race-based harassment Price experienced affected the conditions of his employment.

For harassment to alter the conditions of a person’s employment, “the conduct complained of must be both objectively and subjectively offensive.” EEOC v. WC&M Enters., 496 F.3d 393, 399 (5th Cir. 2007). “To determine whether the victim’s work environment was objectively offensive, courts consider the totality of the circumstances, including (1) the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or merely an offensive utterance; and (4) whether it interferes with an employee’s work performance.” Id. Price has not established an objectively offensive work environment under this test.

First, Price has not shown that the alleged harassment he experienced was frequent. Instead, he identifies two unrelated instances of alleged harassment by different individuals—Langston calling Price a “lazy boy” and Motz saying to Price that “you people always want something for free.” As the Supreme Court has explained, such “isolated incidents” “will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment” “unless [they are] extremely serious.” Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 788 (1998) (quotation marks omitted). But Price has not demonstrated that these comments were “extremely serious” either.

As the district court appropriately recognized, the terms “boy” and “you people” have historically been used in demeaning ways towards Black men. But where, as here, there are only two instances of their use, the terms are insufficiently severe to establish a hostile work environment under our precedent. In Collier v. Dallas County Hospital District, for example, we found that “two instances of racial graffiti and being called ‘boy’ ” were “not sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment.” 827 F. App’x 373, 377–78 (5th Cir. 2020) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Similarly, in Frazier v. Sabine River Authority Louisiana, we concluded that coworkers’ use of the N-word, the word “Negreet,” and a noose gesture “were isolated and not severe or pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment claim.” 509 F. App’x 370, 374 (5th Cir. 2013). And other examples abound. See, e.g., Dailey v. Shintech, Inc., 629 F. App’x 638, 640, 644 (5th Cir. 2015) (finding no hostile work environment where a coworker called plaintiff a “black little motherf—r” and threatened to “kick his black a–s”); Vaughn v. Pool Offshore Co., 683 F.2d 922, 924–25 (5th Cir. 1982) (use of the N-word, “coon,” and “black boy”). Moreover, these comments were not physically threatening, and Price does not claim that he was humiliated by them, rendering each comment “merely an offensive utterance” insufficient to establish a hostile work environment. See WC&M Enters., 496 F.3d at 399.

As for Price’s contention that the district court should have considered Valvoline’s “facially neutral actions”—such as nitpicking Price’s work, “being yelled at for asking a question,” or not being forthright with him concerning his status in the attendance point system—when evaluating the totality of the circumstances for a hostile work environment, we disagree. Price presented no evidence beyond his own speculation and that of Brown that these “facially neutral actions” were racially motivated. And our caselaw is clear that “subjective belief of racial motivation, without more, is not sufficient to show a hostile work environment.” Cavalier v. Clearlake Rehab. Hosp., Inc., 306 F. App’x 104, 106–07 (5th Cir. 2009) (declining to consider allegations that supervisor “bragged to others that she would get [the plaintiff] fired, and repeatedly called him a ‘doofus’ and a ‘dunce’ ” as evidence of race-based harassment supporting a hostile work environment claim).

Based on this, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision.

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