Hostile Work Environment Claim Properly Dismissed; Three Comments Over Nearly Two Decades Insufficient

In Qin v. Vertex, Inc., 2024 WL 1920379 (3d Cir. May 2, 2024), the court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

Qin alleged that he suffered a hostile work environment. He points to three comments that he alleges created a hostile work environment over the course of his nearly two decades of employment: (1) Hart’s review and later verbal comment that the review stemmed from “cultural differences,”3 Appx1128-29, 1145-46; (2) a comment from coworker Robert Norton asking, “why don’t you go back to China if the technology is so advanced?”, Appx0444; and, (3) the “China Man” comments Qin heard at an unspecified time by unidentified speakers at Vertex, Appx0245-46, 0444-45. Additionally, Qin insists in his Opening Brief that we must consider these comments in context—he was the only Chinese employee in his group and was never promoted during his time at Vertex. Br. of Appellant 33-35.

We “concentrate not on individual incidents, but on the overall scenario,” when analyzing a hostile work environment claim. Caver v. City of Trenton, 420 F.3d 243, 262-63 (3d Cir. 2005). The Supreme Court has taught that we are to consider “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.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993).
In considering the severity of the discriminatory conduct, we look to whether the conduct creates “an attitude of prejudice that injects hostility and abuse into the working environment.” Ali v. Woodbridge Twp. Sch. Dist., 957 F.3d 174, 182 (3d Cir. 2020) (quoting Taylor v. Metzger, 706 A.2d 685, 693 (N.J. 1998)). Although the remarks Qin endured were offensive, they do not rise to the level of severity that would alter working conditions. Compare id. (holding that obviously racial comments, including being greeted with “Hey Arabia Nights” or “Hey, Big Egypt” and condescending questions about technology in the plaintiff’s home country, were not so severe as to make a hostile work environment) with Castleberry v. STI Grp., 863 F.3d 259, 265 (3d Cir. 2017) (holding that the use of an unambiguous racial epithet by a supervisor, immediately followed by a threat of termination, created a hostile work environment). None of the remarks here were severe enough to create a hostile work environment.

We must also look to the frequency of the conduct in the context of the case. Nitkin v. Main Line Health, 67 F.4th 565, 571 (3d Cir. 2023); Harris, 510 U.S. at 23. Here, three comments over the course of almost nineteen years simply do not reach the requisite level of frequency or severity. See, e.g., Nitkin, 67 F.4th at 571 (determining that seven comments over three-and-a-half years were neither severe nor pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment). The comments here were too infrequent to constitute pervasive harassment.

Finally, we consider whether the alleged discrimination was physically threatening, humiliating, or unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s work performance. Harris, 510 U.S. at 23. Qin provided no evidence that would allow us to find a hostile work environment existed on these bases.

Accordingly, the court concluded that “[t]he handful of isolated comments presented over Qin’s nearly two decades at Vertex is not enough for a reasonable jury to conclude that Qin was subjected to a hostile work environment” and, thus, agreed with the district court that this claim was properly dismissed.

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