National Origin Discrimination-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed

In Aly v. Janet L. Yellen et al, 2024 WL 2053492 (D.Md. May 8, 2024), the court, inter alia, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

From the decision:

Ms. Aly has failed to allege facts sufficient for the court to plausibly infer that the alleged conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the terms of her employment or create an abusive working environment. Ms. Aly alleges that the harassment she experienced included “being humiliated, receiving reduced performance ratings, being disciplined, and being deprived of employment opportunities.” ECF No. 1, at ¶ 109. The majority of Ms. Aly’s allegations are general statements and do not describe particular incidents of conduct. These general allegations are insufficient to state a claim for a hostile work environment because “general allegations” devoid of “specific dates, times or circumstances…do not suffice to establish an actionable claim of harassment.” Carter v. Ball, 33 F.3d 450, 461–62 (4th Cir. 1994). The specific examples of conduct that Ms. Aly alleges that may allude to a hostile work environment are: (1) an email in which Mr. Liebrand stated he would give Ms. Aly a break from serving coffee to management if she answered a question; (2) an email Mr. Liebrand sent to Ms. Aly stating that she was not following Mr. Liebrand’s protocol and was performing her work incorrectly; (3) an email that Mr. Liebrand sent to Ms. Aly, along with several other employees, demanding that Ms. Aly follow his instructions; and (4) Ms. Chen yelling at Ms. Aly and her colleague during a meeting and stating that she did not need to listen to Ms. Aly because of Ms. Chen’s high ranking in the department. Id. at ¶¶ 15, 36, 46, 51. These events took place over the course of approximately eight months. See id. (the above-listed instances occurring between December 2019 and July 2021).

These incidents, taken as true, are not sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment. Two of these specific instances of conduct, in addition to many of Ms. Aly’s more general allegations, involve Ms. Aly’s managers’ criticism of her job performance. Generally, conduct that involves a supervisor’s provision of negative feedback to an employee is “sometimes necessary in a workplace and do[es] not constitute the kind of conduct that would underlie a hostile work environment.” Decoster v. Becerra, No. TDC-21-2195, 2022 WL 3083343, at *3 (D. Md. Aug. 3, 2022) (holding that the plaintiff did not plausibly state a claim for a hostile work environment where the plaintiff alleged that her employer “singl[ed her] out in front of her colleagues and peers and accused her of failing in her position,” threatened to fire her, and placed her on an improvement plan); Graham v. Prince George’s Cnty., 191 F. App’x 202, 204– 05 (4th Cir. 2006) (affirming district court’s finding that “reprimands from [the supervisor] regarding [the plaintiff’s] performance and the harsh way in which [the supervisor] communicated” were insufficient to allege sufficiently severe or pervasive harassment). The other occurrences, which involved Ms. Aly’s managers yelling and sending an insulting email, are more accurately characterized as “rude treatment” or “callous behavior by [one’s] superiors,” neither of which are actionable under Title VII. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 521 F.3d at 315–16 (alteration in original) (citing Baqir v. Principi, 434 F.3d 733, 747 (4th Cir. 2006); Bass v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 765 (4th Cir. 2003)). See also Onwudiwe v. Becerra, No. TDC-21-1620, 2023 WL 5338156, at *11 (D. Md. Aug. 18, 2023) (dismissing hostile work environment claim where the plaintiff alleged, among other complaints, that her employer yelled at her in an angry tone on one occasion, sent her a “harassing and fear inducing email,” and criticized her performance). Further, the acts Ms. Aly alleges, four instances of conduct over the course of eight months, were too infrequent to constitute pervasive harassment given the nature of the incidents. See, e.g., Finnegan v. Dep’t of Pub. Safety & Corr. Servs., 184 F. Supp. 2d 457, 462–63 (D. Md. 2002) (dismissing hostile work environment claim where the plaintiff “allege[d] that she was verbally abused for several months, [but] offer[ed] few specific examples” and stating that the incidents the plaintiff did allege were infrequent); Mitchell v. Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., No. 23-cv-653-PGT, 2024 WL 993872, at *5 (E.D. Va. Mar. 7, 2024) (finding that seven similar instances of allegedly hostile behavior over the course of seven months was not sufficiently frequent to support a hostile work environment claim); Hamel v. Bd. of Educ. of Harford Cnty., No. JKB-16-2876, 2018 WL 1453335, at *10 (D. Md. Mar. 23, 2018) (stating that the Defendant’s conduct was too infrequent to pass the severe or pervasive test, and specifically was “a far cry from the daily, debilitating harassment other courts in this Circuit have found pervasive” (emphasis in original)).

Courts in this Circuit have frequently found that plaintiffs alleging conduct similar to that which Ms. Aly alleges have failed to meet the high “severe or pervasive” bar to support a hostile work environment claim. For example, in Buchhagen v. ICF Intern., Inc., 545 F. App’x 217, 219 (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit explained that the plaintiff’s allegations that her employer yelled at her during meetings, consistently criticized her, and played favorites fell “far short of being severe or pervasive enough to establish an abusive environment….” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim. Id. Similarly, in Jones v. Eli Lilly & Co., No. GJH-20-3564, 2021 WL 4502810, at *8 (D. Md. Sept. 30, 2021), this Court dismissed a plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim that was based on allegations that the plaintiff’s employer held Black employees to a higher standard than others, falsely accused the plaintiff of inadequate job performance, and frequently placed the plaintiff on PIPs and threatened termination. Thus, while Ms. Aly has alleged a number of incidents that she perceived as hostile, she has “alleged no incidents of physically threatening conduct, abusive communications, or discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that characterizes a[n objectively] hostile work environment.” Stovall v. H&S Bakery, No. TDC-20-3234, 2021 WL 2580746, at *6 (D. Md. June 23, 2021) (citing Boyer-Liberto, 786 F.3d at 277).

Based on this, the court held that dismissal of plaintiff’s claim was warranted.

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