Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim, Based on Racial Caricature, Survives Dismissal

In Norman v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, No. 23-00330-BAJ-EWD, 2024 WL 477521 (M.D.La. Feb. 7, 2024), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s race-based hostile work environment claim.

Initially, the court found that plaintiff’s allegations regarding nooses found at his workplace cannot support his hostile work environment claim, given his admission that he “was not directly affected” by these incidents.

It reached a different conclusion, however, as to plaintiff’s allegation concerning a racial caricature:

Plaintiff describes an incident in which a caricature of Plaintiff as a “stereotypical African American”[] was placed in his workspace and then disseminated as a video via text messages to his coworkers. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 11–12). Plaintiff further alleges that no action was taken by Defendant following this incident, and Plaintiff resigned as a result. (Id. ¶ 16). This single incident, although isolated, may be sufficiently severe for Plaintiff to state a claim for hostile work environment and survive Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss.

Courts have addressed racist caricatures in the context of hostile work environment claims before. See Jones v. Dallas Cnty., No. 3:11-CV-2153-D, 2014 WL 1632154, at *5 (N.D. Tex. Apr. 23, 2014); Flowers v. Sessions, No. 217CV118KSMTPJEFF, 2019 WL 1246199, at *4 (S.D. Miss. Mar. 18, 2019). But those cases, where the caricature incidents were ultimately found to be insufficiently severe, are distinguishable from the facts alleged here. Crucially, the racist caricatures in Jones and Flowers either did not depict the plaintiffs or questions remained as to whether the plaintiffs were depicted. See Jones, 2014 WL 1632154, at *5 (“[P]laintiffs do not allege that any plaintiff actually saw the caricature when it was posted [on a bulletin board] or that the caricature was directed at them.”); Flowers, 2019 WL 1246199, at *4 (“Plaintiff assumed that the drawing [on a dry-erase board in the office] was supposed to be him[.]”). In contrast, the facts alleged here allow a reasonable inference that Plaintiff was the target of the caricature because he alleges that it was supposed to be him and because the drawing was placed in his own workspace, explicitly connecting him to it. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 11–12). In Flowers, the plaintiff could only “assum[e]” that he was the target of the image. Flowers, 2019 WL 1246199, at *4. But the Flowers decision came at the summary judgment stage, when “unsubstantiated assertions” no longer sufficed. Flowers, 2019 WL 1246199, at *2. At the motion to dismiss stage, Plaintiff’s complaint need only be “plausible on its face,” as the Court finds it is here. Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678 (quotation omitted).

Distinguishing Plaintiff’s case even further, the caricature targeting Plaintiff was then “widely disseminated” to his coworkers in text messages. (Doc. 1 ¶ 12). Although the caricatures in Jones and Flowers were visible publicly, those images did not clearly depict the plaintiffs. Here, in stark contrast, the image targeting Plaintiff was sent to the people that he worked with so that each person could witness the personalized racist humiliation. The Court finds that this compounding of the harassment through widespread publication advances Plaintiffs claim beyond the pleading stage. See Woods, 29 F.4th at 285 (finding that a single incident stated an actionable claim of hostile work environment where a supervisor called plaintiff a racial epithet in front of his fellow employees).

The court thus concluded that plaintiff has adequately stated a hostile work environment claim, by alleging “facts to show that he is a member of a protected group, he suffered harassment due to his membership in that group,[] the harassment affected a term or condition of his employment, and Defendant knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action.”

Interestingly, the court emphasized “that it is inconsequential that the caricature was allegedly created by another African American employee,” citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998) for the proposition that “[i]t would be unwise to presume as a matter of law that human beings of one definable group will not discriminate against other members of their group.”

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