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6th Circuit Uphold Dismissal of Hostile Work Environment Claims

Posted on February 19, 2024

Important Takeaways: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of hostile work environment claims where the employee could not show severe or pervasive conduct.

Facts: Ogbonna-McGruder (the Plaintiff) sued her employer Austin Peay State University (APSU) alleging that two of her supervisors engaged in racial discrimination, created a hostile work environment, and retaliated against her when she opposed their unlawful conduct.

In 2003, APSU hired the Plaintiff to teach criminal justice and public management classes. The Plaintiff is African American. The spring after she was hired, the public management and criminal justice departments split. The Plaintiff could either join a single department or seek a joint appointment. Seeking a joint appointment to the departments required faculty review of her qualifications but joining a single department did not. The plaintiff alleges that she was denied the opportunity to select her department after the Dean rejected her request for joint appointment.

The Plaintiff filed a claim with APSU’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action saying the Dean engaged in racial discrimination when he denied her request. ASPU’s internal investigation found the Dean’s actions were wrong but APSU took no action against him. She then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2019. The plaintiff claimed that after she filed this claim, her supervisors created a hostile work environment in retaliation. In 2020, she filed another EEOC claim alleging that her employer discriminated against her because of race. She filed a third EEOC claim in 2021m alleging again that APSU retaliated against her in response to her other EEOC claims.

For her second and third EEOC claims, the Plaintiff received a right to sue letter and sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Her complaint alleged ASPU created a hostile work environment based on her race, discriminated against her on the basis of race, unlawfully retaliated against her for opposing APSU’s discriminatory practices, and created a hostile work environment in retaliation for opposing the discrimination. The district court granted a motion to dismiss on all claims.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that in order for a hostile work environment claim to survive summary judgment, it must allege that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive work environment. The Plaintiff must also allege the harassment was based on race. The Court agreed with the district court that the claim should be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to allege severe or pervasive harassment. Discrete acts of discrimination could not be characterized as part of the hostile work environment. Allegations of discrete acts must be alleged as separate claims. The Plaintiff only alleged four incidents that may have constituted harassment and even if these claims were true, it would not be enough to show harassment so severe and pervasive as to create a hostile work environment.

The Court also held that the dismissal of the retaliatory hostile work environment claim was proper. The Plaintiff must allege that she was subjected to severe or pervasive retaliatory harassment by a supervisor after she engaged in a protected activity under Title VII. They must also allege a causal connection between the activity and the harassment. The Plaintiff did not make these allegations.

The Court upheld the dismissal of the discrimination claims as well. The Plaintiff needed to show that she was a member of a protected class, there was an adverse employment action, that she was qualified for her position, and she was replaced by someone outside of the protected class or treated differently from similarly situated members of the unprotected class. The Court held that the Plaintiff failed to allege any adverse employment actions she experienced were motivated by discrimination. She did not explain how any actions taken against her were racially motivated.

What this means: In the 9th Circuit, where Montana is located, the elements to show a hostile work environment claim are the existence of a hostile work environment which the plaintiff was subjected to, unwelcome conduct, and the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment. Typically one incident or situation would not meet the severe or pervasive standard, there must be a pattern of conduct.

About this case: In Re: Rockeeta Richard, State of Louisiana Court of Appeal, 6th Circuit, January 20, 2024. Read it here.

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Megan, Beth, Kevin, and Kali at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.

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