In a recent case, the Court found there wasn’t sufficient evidence of employment discrimination or hostile work environment, where the employee’s claims were based on a single incident of conduct by a co-worker and the employer took swift corrective action. The Court also offered additional guidance on when a voluntary resignation may be considered a constructive discharge sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action.
Franks v. Triple Canopy, Inc.
In Franks v. Triple Canopy, Inc., Chris Franks, an African American, was employed by Triple Canopy, Inc. at Camp Buehring in Kuwait. Triple Canopy and its parent company, Constellis, LLC, are government contractors that provide security services at U.S. Army installations across Kuwait. On July 15, 2017, after arriving to relieve Justin Good and John Sheldon from their shift, Franks saw a rope hanging from the ceiling of a guard shack in the shape of a noose. Franks notified the sergeant on duty and Franks prepared a written statement and an Incident Reporting Form was completed. Several Triple Canopy managers were notified and went to the site to document the incident. A Human Resources representative traveled to the Camp and interviewed witnesses. Franks told HR he believed Sheldon and Williams had hung the noose.
HR could not determine who hung the rope, but Williams and Sheldon were transferred to another camp. An email was sent to all Triple Canopy employees working in Kuwait that reiterated the company’s prohibition on harassment and discrimination and summarized the company’s reporting procedures. On July 20, 2017, Franks requested a housing change and his request was approved. On July 30, 2017, Franks moved into his new apartment and on the same day, he resigned from Triple Canopy. Franks filed suit alleging race discrimination and that the Defendants created a hostile work environment. The Eastern District of Virginia granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendants.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against any individual on the basis of the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. To successfully make a claim of discrimination under Title VII, a plaintiff must show: (1) membership in a protected class; (2) satisfactory job performance; (3) adverse employment action; and (4) different treatment from similarly situated employees outside the protected class. At issue in this case was whether Franks suffered an “adverse employment action.”
An “adverse employment action” is a “significant change in employment status,” such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or other decision causing a significant change in benefits. If conduct “does not detrimentally affect the terms, conditions, or benefits of employment,” it cannot constitute an adverse employment action. Here, Franks argued that he suffered an adverse employment action, because seeing the noose and Defendants’ failure to take meaningful corrective action, forced him to resign. The Court noted that when an employee resigns due to working conditions that have “become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign,” the resignation can be treated as a discharge. However, if an employee instead “voluntarily quits under circumstances insufficient to amount to a constructive discharge,” that resignation is not an adverse employment action.
The Court found that Franks did not establish that he was subject to working conditions that were so intolerable that a reasonable person would resign. Franks’ argument relied on the single incident of seeing the noose, and the Court determined that this isolated incident wasn’t sufficient to give rise to objective intolerability. The court also acknowledged that since the Defendants investigated the incident, retrained staff, and sought to accommodate Franks with new housing, Franks’ single incident did not make working conditions sufficiently intolerable.
To succeed on a claim of hostile work environment, a plaintiff must establish that the harassment was (1) unwelcome; (2) based on race; and (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere. Additionally, the plaintiff must demonstrate that there is some basis for imposing liability for the harassment on the employer. Here, the Court concluded that Franks did not establish that the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive. When determining if conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive, courts look at the “totality of the circumstances,” considering the frequency and severity of the discriminatory conduct; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.
Franks argued that the isolated incident of seeing the noose is sufficiently severe and pervasive to establish a hostile work environment claim. The Court noted that “a single, isolated incident is generally not sufficient to establish severe and pervasive conduct.” Moreover, the Defendants took reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior, swiftly investigated the incident, and accommodated Franks’ housing request. Since Franks couldn’t establish that this isolated incident was sufficiently severe or pervasive, his hostile work environment claim also failed.
What Does Franks v. Triple Canopy, Inc. Mean for Employers?
Here, the Court found there wasn’t sufficient evidence of employment discrimination or hostile work environment, in part due to the Defendants’ response to the incident. The Court focused on the fact that Defendants swiftly investigated the incident, took actions to prevent future harassing behavior, such as retraining staff, and sought to accommodate Franks with new housing. The key takeaway of this case is the importance of employers taking appropriate action when incidents of discrimination are reported. Employers should have a policy in place stating how employees should report such incidents and also how such incidents should be investigated by the organization. Employers should make sure to adequately investigate all claims and take action to prevent future discrimination or harassment. Having a policy against discrimination and harassment in the workplace included in an employee handbook and occasional discrimination and harassment training for employees are also good practices for employers to adopt.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-991-7973. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.