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Fourth Circuit Says Infrequent but Repeated Comments Can Create a Hostile Working Environment Based on Race

    Client Alerts
  • December 02, 2022

Long-time EmployNews readers know that we have repeatedly written about the changing legal standard for racial harassment claims adopted by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia). Over the past decade or so, the Fourth Circuit has gone from requiring a very high demonstration of racially motivated behavior to a standard that allows claims to go to trial based on a considerably lower level of conduct. This pattern continued earlier this week when the court reversed a grant of summary judgment against an employee who alleged that she had been subjected to a sporadic series of racial comments and behavior over a long period of time.

In Laurent-Workman v. Wormuth, the plaintiff was a civilian Department of the Army employee who alleged that she had been exposed to a race-based hostile work environment. She claimed that a white co-worker made several comments disparaging African Americans during the course of her employment. She also alleged that her supervisors ignored her complaints about this behavior, and later retaliated against her. The district court dismissed the claims, concluding that the plaintiff’s allegations of sporadic comments over an extended period of time did not constitute a severe and pervasive hostile work environment based on race.

The Fourth Circuit reversed this decision with the exception of a portion of her retaliation claim, remanding the case for a jury trial. The court noted that in order to reach the threshold for a racially hostile work environment, plaintiffs are not required to show that they were exposed to daily conduct. The court also allowed the case to go to trial despite the fact that the alleged comments made by the plaintiff’s co-worker were general comments about African Americans and were not personally directed at her.

This decision is consistent with the Fourth Circuit’s long-term trend of relaxing the factual and legal standard necessary for plaintiffs to prove hostile environment racial harassment. Employers faced with such suits cannot expect federal courts to dismiss claims on the basis that the racially motivated conduct was upsetting but not severe enough to constitute a hostile working environment. These decisions make it more important than ever for employers to conduct training covering all types of harassment and to enforce their anti-harassment policies when complaints are received from employees.