Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed; “Frustration” Did Not Rise to the Level of Actionable Hostility

In Davenport v. Joseph Fiordaliso et al, Civil Action No. 18-13687 (GC) (JBD), 2024 WL 343157 (D.N.J. Jan. 30, 2024), the court, inter alia, granted defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim.

From the decision:

As to a hostile work environment, Plaintiff does not allege that anyone at the NJBPU ever used a racial slur or made a racist remark or threat. Instead, his theory appears to be that by failing to promote him, failing to seriously consider his applications for promotion, acting to frustrate his attempts for management level opportunities, denying his “legitimate” travel expenses, placing a litigation hold, and failing to offer him greater professional support, the NJBPU fostered a racially hostile environment. (ECF No. 69 at 8-11.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Sheehan “fail[ed] to acknowledge, process, evaluate, and properly promote … Plaintiff’s work product for an extended period,” including from 2010 through 2017, and that it was due to Plaintiff’s race. (Id. at 10.) Sheehan is further alleged to have denied Plaintiff and others “face time” with the NJBPU’s Commissioners. (Id.)

“To establish a cause of action based on a hostile work environment, a plaintiff must plead allegations to support ‘that the complained-of conduct (1) would not have occurred but for the employee’s protected status, and was (2) severe or pervasive enough to make a (3) reasonable person believe that (4) the conditions of employment have been altered and that the working environment is hostile or abusive.’ ” Doe v. Sizewise Rentals, LLC, Civ. No. 09-3409, 2010 WL 4861138, at *6 (D.N.J. Nov. 22, 2010) (quoting Shepherd v. Hunterdon Developmental Ctr., 803 A.2d 611, 625 (N.J. 2002)).

After careful review, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s allegations do not rise to the level to connect Sheehan to a plausible hostile work environment claim. Often, such claims involve objectionable and clearly hostile comments or threats of a racist nature. See, e.g., Brown v. Joel Tanis & Sons, Inc., Civ. No. 13-02984, 2014 WL 2705262, at *2–3 (D.N.J. June 13, 2014) (finding “frequent and continual use of” racial slurs “combined with numerous other threats and racist remarks” to plausibly state claim for hostile work environment). This is because a hostile work environment is one so “permeated with ‘discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult,’ that is ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.’ ” Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 116 (2002) (quoting Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993)); Castleberry v. STI Grp., 863 F.3d 259, 264 (3d Cir. 2017) (“Whether an environment is hostile requires looking at the totality of 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.’ ”

Here, Plaintiff does not point to overtly discriminatory comments or actions. And allegations like those asserted here—that Plaintiff was ignored, treated rudely and/or discourteously, and was frustrated in obtaining a promotion—have generally been found insufficient on their own to state a hostile work environment claim.

The court concluded that “while [i]t appreciates that Plaintiff’s workplace may have been a frustrating environment, the factual matter pleaded does not allow the Court to plausibly infer that Plaintiff was subjected to discrimination by one of the individual Defendants or that Plaintiff was subjected to a hostile work environment.”

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