Many employment discrimination claims are based on the existence of a “hostile work environment.” This refers to a pattern of harassment against the affected employee that prevents him or her from doing his or her job or in some cases is intentionally designed to force the employee to quit. A hostile work environment is more than conduct that an employee finds annoying. It must be directed against him or her on the basis of race, sex, religion, or some other legally protected characteristic.
Single Email Insufficient to Support Federal Discrimination Lawsuit
There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to proving the existence of a hostile work environment. It must be determined on a case-by-case basis. But as the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York has explained, the burden is on the employee alleging a hostile work environment to prove that the “workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment.”
Put another way, a single upsetting incident is often not enough to sustain a hostile work environment claim. Here is an illustration from a recent decision by a federal judge in Manhattan. In this case, an African-American woman who worked as a housekeeping supervisor at a Times Square-area hotel alleged that she was the victim of a hostile work environment under federal, state, and city anti-discrimination laws.
According to the plaintiff's complaint, one day the front desk manager at the hotel sent a group email to more than a dozen employees, including the plaintiff, that contained a “musical skit” from a corporate “team-building exercise.” The skit featured hotel employees singing a song that included the N-word.
This “highly offended” the plaintiff, according to her lawsuit, and she sent a “reply all” to the email in which she said such language was “offensive and should not be part of our vocabulary.” The hotel's general manager then “admonished” the plaintiff for her reply and demanded a public apology. The plaintiff refused, and thereafter she said the general manager “refused to speak to her” except about work-related matters.
In dismissing her federal anti-discrimination claims, the judge said that while a “single act can create a hostile work environment” if it is “extraordinarily severe” and “works a transformation of the plaintiff's workplace,” this was not such a case. While the plaintiff “experienced an unfortunate, offensive workplace incident,” it did not create a “hostile work environment.” While the general manager allegedly admonished the plaintiff for her reply, he also “took appropriate remedial action” with the front desk manager who sent the initially offending email.
Have You Been Subjected to a Hostile Work Environment?
It should be noted that while the judge dismissed the plaintiff's federal lawsuit, she is free to refile her state and city anti-discrimination charges in state court. Employment discrimination cases often involve multiple potential claims like this. This is why you need to work with an experienced New York employment law attorney if you have been the victim of a hostile work environment. Contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar if you need to speak with a lawyer today.