In a recent case, the Fourth Circuit found in favor of an employee against her previous employer for claims of hostile work environment and retaliation. There, the court determined the employee plausibly pled claims of hostile work environment and retaliation when she was subjected to comments from her coworker and supervisor and negative management decisions after she complained about the bad treatment. The court also explained the standard applied in retaliation claims. This case may serve as guidance for employees and employers with similar circumstances
Laurent-Workman v. Wormuth
Laurent-Workman, an African American woman, worked as a civilian with the U.S. Army from November 2017 until August 2020. She was stationed at an Army base in Belgium and quickly began experiencing racially hostile conduct from a co-worker, Dorothea Adams, a white, Dutch woman. On several occasions Adams made negative comments to Laurent-Workman, including that “blacks cannot speak properly” and that she “cannot understand them.” Laurent-Workman spoke to her and Adams’ supervisor, Jasser Khalifeh, about Adams’ comments, but he refused to take any remedial steps. Khalifeh also communicated to a group of colleagues that black male athletes “excel” in sports because “the slave masters had bred the strongest slaves together.”
Khalifeh removed a quarter of Laurent-Workman’s work duties and delegated them to Adams. At the end of August 2018, Laurent-Workman met with Shun Thomas, another supervisor, to discuss the removal of her job responsibilities, her prior complaints about disparate and harassing treatment, and the failure of management to address the problem. In response, Thomas asked her “Do you like your job?” seemingly as an attempt to dissuade her from further complaints.
In December 2018, Laurent-Workman met with counsel to initiate a complaint of discrimination. In the months following her Title VII complaint, Khalifeh engaged in more oppressive conduct, such as not letting her present during meetings. On September 10, 2019, Laurent-Workman submitted a second Title VII complaint. In November 2019, a vacancy for a program coordinator position became available within the Human Resources department. During her interview for the position, she was asked about conflicts she had with co-workers and ultimately was not selected for the position. Laurent-Workman resigned in August 2020. On October 28, 2020, Laurent-Workman sued the Secretary of the Army for substantive discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. The district court dismissed her claims.
Hostile Work Environment
Under Title VII, employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” is prohibited. Employers are also prohibited from subjecting an employee to a hostile work environment. Working conditions form a hostile work environment when they are “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult” that “alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”
At the motion to dismiss phase, for a successful claim of hostile work environment, a plaintiff “must offer facts that plausibly support inferences that ‘she was subjected to (1) unwelcome conduct, (2) based on her race [or national origin] or sex, that was (3) severe or pervasive enough to make her work environment hostile or abusive and (4) imputable to  her employer.’” The court considers several factors when evaluating whether the alleged working conditions are severe or pervasive enough to support a Title VII claim, including the “frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”
Here, the court found that “even though they do not depict daily misconduct, Laurent-Workman’s allegations demonstrate a series of hateful workplace encounters that consistently targeted her racial identity.” Specifically, the court noted that the repeat behavior of Adams and Khalifeh “was neither isolated nor a symptom of trite differences.” The court noted that Laurent-Workman “endured a breadth of publicly humiliating comments from Adams on several occasions” and Khalifeh not only knew of Adams’s racial hostility, “but further entrenched it with his own vile remark.” The court concluded that Laurent-Workman pled a plausible claim for a race-based hostile work environment over and “above the speculative level.”
Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against employees or applicants because they have opposed discrimination or “made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing.” To make a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must show (1) that she engaged in a protected activity, (2) that her employer took an adverse action against her, and (3) that there was a causal link between the two events.
Previously, the court held that challenged acts of retaliation must “result in an adverse effect on the ‘terms, conditions, or benefits’ of employment.” However, in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Company that the phrase “discriminate against” in the anti-retaliation provision does not confine actionable retaliation to adverse actions that alter the terms and conditions of employment. Instead, “a plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, ‘which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’”
The court here determined that the Burlington Northern “materially adverse” standard applies to private employees and federal employees, as well as retaliatory hostile work environment claims. The court confirmed that a hostile work environment claim based on retaliation must allege that “the retaliatory conduct (1) was unwelcome, (2) was sufficiently severe or pervasive that it would dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination, and (3) can be attributed to the employer.”
The court found “the consistent (even if not constant) conduct Laurent-Workman alleges plausibly qualifies as materially adverse.” Specifically, the court noted that after Laurent-Workman complained to Khalifeh and Thomas about Adams’s and Khalifeh’s conduct, Khalifeh engaged in a series of unpredictable management decisions and acts of sabotage, including erroneous reprimands, bogus denials of professional training opportunities, and the alteration of work product in a manner damaging to Laurent-Workman’s reputation. The court noted that “although any one of these allegations does not amount to much when considered in isolation,” the court considers “the totality of the circumstances.” The court found that all the allegations together established a prima facie case.
What Does Laurent-Workman v. Wormuth Mean for Employers?
Importantly, the Fourth Circuit here clarified the standard for retaliation claims after the U.S. Supreme Court Burlington Northern ruling. The court explained that the ruling’s “materially adverse” standard applies to both private employees and federal employees, as well as retaliatory hostile work environment claims. Under this “less demanding” standard, acts of retaliation that do not alter the terms of employment still can frustrate Title VII’s intentions.
Regarding hostile work environment claims, the court made clear that even without “daily misconduct,” “a series of hateful workplace encounters” can be the basis of a successful claim. Similarly, retaliation claims aren’t viewed in isolation and courts must consider “the totality of the circumstances.” Even if individual instances don’t “amount to much” in isolation, together, multiple allegations can result in a successful claim.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-556-0411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.