White Penn State Professor Sufficiently Alleges Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims

In De Piero v. Pennsylvania State University et al, CIVIL ACTION NO. 23-2281, 2024 WL 128209 (E.D.Pa. January 11, 2024), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and local law.

Among other things, plaintiff, a white college professor, described a “series of university-sanctioned professional development meetings and comments from supervisors that addressed racial issues in sweeping, absolute terms” and alleged that he was required to attend events that “singled out white instructors.” Plaintiff ultimately resigned.

As to plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims, after summarizing the pertinent black-letter law, the court explained:

De Piero’s allegations are more specific [than those in cases cited by defendants]: he was obligated to attend conferences or trainings that discussed racial issues in essentialist and deterministic terms—ascribing negative traits to white people or white teachers without exception and as flowing inevitably from their race—in June 2020, October 2020, November 2020, January 2021, and October 2021. His Amended Complaint contains at least some discussion of the content of each such meeting; in June 2020, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, “Wong expressed her intention to cause Penn State’s white faculty to ‘feel the pain’ that [he] endured;” in a “breathing exercise,” Wong told “White and non-Black people of color to hold [their breath] just a little longer—to feel the pain;” that October, Naydan, De Piero’s supervisor, co-led a professional development meeting on multiculturalism that included “supposed examples of ‘racist’ comments” where every hypothetical perpetrator was white; the following month included an event called “Arts and Humanities as Activism,” where De Piero alleges the facilitator “condemn[ed] white people for no other reason than they spoke or were simply present while being ‘white,’ ” including by “condemn[ing] … ‘white elites’ and ‘white self-interest;’ ” Naydan endorsed that training’s message repeatedly; in January 2021, at an “antiracism pedagogy” meeting, Naydan spoke of race conscious grading; and, finally, in October of that year, Naydan and her co-facilitator led another training, which included an excerpt that “accused white faculty” of ‘unwittingly reproduc[ing] racist discourses and practices in our classroom.” It was, according to Naydan’s co-facilitator, “about a group.”

De Piero also documents emails and interpersonal interactions from this time period, including a comment by a colleague “that resistance to wearing masks ‘is …more likely to be led by white males,’ ” an email from Smith “instructing Penn State’s white employees to ‘feel terrible,’ ” messages from Naydan including one encouraging him to “assure that all students see that white supremacy manifests itself in language and in writing pedagogy,” and multiple emails urging him to watch a video titled “White Teachers Are a Problem.” And when De Piero went to Borges to air his concerns, she told him that “[t]here is a problem with the white race.” De Piero simply did not “get it,” so, according to Borges, he should continue to attend more workshops and trainings until the message sunk in.

The court concluded that, taken together, these allegations plausibly amount to “pervasive” harassment that, at least on a motion to dismiss, passes muster.

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