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In a recently decided case out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Vanoy Allen sued her employer, Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, Inc., claiming that she was subjected to a racially hostile work environment. See Allen v. Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, Inc., No. 22-30546, 2023 WL 3267840, at *1 (5th Cir. May 5, 2023). As part of this claim, Allen pointed to evidence that, among other things, a doctor publicly complained that she was hired only because she was Black. Certainly, this is racially offensive and inappropriate in the workplace. Did Allen have enough evidence to prove a legally hostile work environment? Let’s dive in.

How do I prove a hostile work environment claim under Title VII?

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a hostile work environment exists when there is severe or pervasive unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic (which for Title VII purposes, include race/color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity). To establish a hostile work environment under Title VII, the following elements must typically be proven:

  1. The employee is a member of a protected class.
  2. The employee was subjected to unwelcome conduct based on one or more protected characteristics.
  3. The conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile or abusive work environment.
  4. The conduct was both subjectively and objectively perceived as abusive by the employee.
  5. The employer knew or should have known about the conduct and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

It’s important to understand that there is no bright-line rule for what constitutes a hostile work environment, and each case is evaluated on its own unique set of facts. Additionally, the standard for proving a hostile work environment may vary somewhat depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the case. This is why it is critical to consult with an employment discrimination attorney about your particular situation and the harassment you are facing.

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What qualifies as severe or pervasive conduct?

Determining whether conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. There is no specific threshold or formula for determining what is severe or pervasive, and each case is evaluated on its own merits.

Generally speaking, a single incident of harassment is typically not enough to establish a hostile work environment. However, if the conduct is severe, such as physical assault, threats of harm, or use of offensive language or slurs, it may be sufficient to create a hostile work environment on its own.

Alternatively, if the conduct is less severe, such as unwanted advances, comments, or gestures, a pattern of such conduct may be sufficient to create a hostile work environment if it is frequent or pervasive enough. Factors that may be considered in evaluating whether the conduct is pervasive include the frequency of the conduct, the duration of the conduct, the nature and severity of the conduct, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

Ultimately, whether conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment is a highly fact-specific inquiry, and the determination will depend on the particular circumstances of each case.

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What was Allen’s evidence of a hostile work environment and was it enough?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit summarized all the evidence that Allen presented for her hostile work environment claim:

Dr. Boedefeld publicly complained that Plaintiff was hired only because she was Black (in 2012/2013); Dr. Boedefeld twice refused to discuss cases with Plaintiff (in 2012/2013); Dr. Boedefeld twice publicly yelled at Plaintiff (in 2012/2013); Dr. Boedefeld once “questioned” Plaintiff’s supervisor (in 2017); a co-worker once publicly referred to Plaintiff as a “bitch” (in 2016); Supervisor Hussain once said at a staff meeting “Vanoy you don’t have a voice” (unspecified date); Plaintiff once requested to work a shift in the CICU, and the shift was awarded instead to two “full-time nurses” from another unit (in 2018); and, finally, Supervisor Hussain once refused Plaintiffs[‘] request for a meeting to discuss Plaintiff’s annual performance review (in 2018).

Id. at *2.

My first reaction to reading the list of evidence was that one comment about race that occurred five to six years ago by someone that was not her supervisor would not likely be considered by any court. Beyond being beyond the statute of limitations, there is no indication that this isolated comment was known by management nor impacted Allen’s ability to do her job.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Allen could not support her claim:

First, although we do not require a plaintiff to show a certain number of instances of harassment, Allen has failed to show that the harassment she faced was frequent. The evidence credited by the district court consists of ten incidents over seven years. …

Additionally, Allen has failed to show that the alleged actions were severe, physically threatening, or humiliating. Hostile work environment claims are not intended to function as a “general civility code.” Sporadic use of abusive language, one shift denial, and one refused meeting are not severe or humiliating under the governing standard, and Allen has not alleged any physical threats.

Finally, Allen has not alleged that these actions prevented her from succeeding in the workplace. On the contrary, she argues that “[t]he fact that Allen continued to perform her job well, and that [the Hospital] did not discipline her, or terminate her employment in the traditional sense, should not detract from [Allen]’s showing of pervasive or severe conduct sufficient to alter the terms and conditions of her employment.”

Id. at *3-4.

That last point is an attorney issue. Clearly, Allen’s attorney recognized that her continued positive performance for years cut against her racially hostile work environment claim. The better course of action would have been to present evidence regarding how any hostile conduct impaired Allen’s ability to perform her job – if that evidence existed, of course. However, even with that evidence, Allen’s race discrimination hostile work environment claim would have failed for the other reasons cited above.

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How can an attorney help me bring a hostile work environment claim?

Skilled employment law and race discrimination lawyers can help you evaluate your potential claims and gather evidence. These employee’s rights attorneys can counsel you through the process of properly filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and filing suit. And critically, having the right attorney will help you know when to settle your case instead of risking going forward. Undoubtedly, Allen likely had an opportunity to settle for something at some point but turned it down to seek more. A good attorney can tell you when it is time to grab the bird in the hand. If you are facing a hostile workplace based on your race, gender, national origin, or any other protected class, it would be best to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?). Call our top employment lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.

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