Alleged Harassment by CEO Sufficiently Stated Claim for Race, Sex-Based Hostile Work Environment, Court Holds

In Clark v. Sampson Regional Medical Center, Incorporated, NO. 5:22-CV-529-FL, 2023 WL 8654920 (E.D.N.C. Dec. 14, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims of race & sex-based hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After reciting the elements that a plaintiff must allege to state a hostile work environment claim – namely, that (1) she experienced unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on her race or protected activity; (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere; and (4) there is some basis for imposing liability on the employer – the court applied it to the facts.

From the decision:

Here plaintiff alleges facts giving rise to a plausible inference of each element of a hostile work environment claim based upon race and sex. Concerning the first element, plaintiff meets the subjective standard by alleging she experienced unwelcome harassment including through the conduct of Howerton, whose demeanor allegedly was “so intense [for plaintiff] that she feared for her personal safety.”

Turning to the second element, plaintiff alleges sufficient facts to permit an inference of harassment based upon sex, through Howerton’s alleged use of gender-specific epithets. During the October 9 meeting, plaintiff alleges that Howerton called plaintiff “a bitch” and told her “to stop her bitching and complaining[.]” …

In addition, although a closer question, plaintiff alleges sufficient facts to permit an inference that her harassment also was based on race. A court may infer that harassment is based on race when the plaintiff suffered harassment more often than others of different races or suffered harassment of a kind likely to be motivated by race. But a plaintiff cannot rely on her own conjecture to impute a racial character to what appears to be neutral harassment. Here, there are no alleged racially derogatory comments or references to race by the alleged harasser, Howerton. … Nevertheless, Howerton’s alleged harassment allegedly followed immediately from plaintiff’s own statements complaining about race and “the impropriety of staging a work event at a plantation[.]” Because of this temporal proximity, coupled with the alleged intense demeanor and anger on the part of Howerton, including verbal abuse and physically cornering plaintiff, drawing all inferences from the allegations of the complaint in plaintiff’s favor, it is plausible to infer the harassment was motivated by race.

Concerning the third element, a plaintiff must clear a high bar in order to satisfy the objective severe or pervasive test. The severe or pervasive conduct which gives rise to an abusive work environment must be both objectively and subjectively hostile and abusive. Objective analysis of whether a workplace is hostile and abusive looks to all the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. The status of the harasser is also a significant factor to be considered; harassment by a supervisor tends to be more serious, while harassment by a co-equal is less serious.

Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to permit an inference that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere. Plaintiff alleges that Howerton became verbally abusive towards [plaintiff]” and “repeatedly used offensive and sexist language, including “calling [plaintiff] a bitch and telling her to stop her bitching and complaining[.]” While such offensive language is not alone actionable, multiple additional alleged facts and circumstances give rise to an inference of an objectively abusive atmosphere. First, plaintiff alleges that during the October 9 meeting Howerton “physically cornered [plaintiff] while [plaintiff] was attempting to distance herself from him.” The presence of physical threats undeniably strengthens a hostile work environment claim. Second, plaintiff alleges that Howerton’s “demeanor and anger were so intense that she feared for her personal safety.” An isolated incident that is physically threatening or humiliating will be closer to the type of conduct actionable on its own because it is extremely serious.

Third, the alleged harasser in this case, Howerton, was the defendant’s CEO. Simply put, a supervisor’s power and authority invests his or her harassing conduct with a particular threatening character. In measuring the severity of harassing conduct, the status of the harasser may be a significant factor where a supervisor’s use of an epithet impacts the work environment far more severely than use by co-equals. Here, Howerton was not only alleged to be senior to plaintiff, but the head of the entire company, creating an inference of a significant difference in status.

Fourth, the alleged harassment occurred immediately after plaintiff, the only black female resident, objected to a suggested resident retreat at the site of a former plantation. While that suggestion in of itself may not create a hostile work environment, it is impossible to ignore the context in which the harassment took place. … Plaintiff also alleges that following the October 9 meeting, plaintiff was summoned to a human resources meeting on October 12, where Howerton “attempted to force [plaintiff] to apologize for the events” that occurred October 9, her “requests for information on how to receive counseling … were ignored[,]” and Miller, another superior, “asked plaintiff if she was being a bitch,” in reference to the October 9 meeting.

Fifth, while not actionable in themselves, plaintiff alleges multiple incidents that contributed, on top of all the foregoing, to a severe or pervasive work environment. Plaintiff allegedly endured an all-white nursing staff creating a list of fake ethnic names to mock African American babies. Further, plaintiff contends that she was singled out among her all-white peers by not having “the same access to resources provided to other residents such as residency program/hospital logo, fulfilling nursing duties, and taking messages and notes for a male co-resident although none of the other residents were required to do so.

[Cleaned up; paragraphing altered; citations omitted.]

Based on this, the court concluded that “plaintiff’s complaint alleges sufficient facts to plausibly support the inference that the alleged harassment meets the severe or pervasive standard.”

The court further held that plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to infer that there is a basis for imposing liability on the employer, noting that “[e]mployers are generally presumed to be liable for hostile work environment harassment committed by supervisory employees.” This was met here, since Howerton was defendant’s CEO.

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