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Claims of Hostile Work Environment Happened Over Too Long a Period, Court Rules

    Client Alerts
  • February 09, 2024

Last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected claims from a university professor that she had been subjected to a series of retaliatory acts in the two- and one-half year period following her filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge accusing the university of discriminating against her on the basis of race. The court concluded that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the alleged retaliatory acts rose to the level of a hostile and offensive work environment.

In Ogbonna-McGruder v. Austin Peay State Univ., the plaintiff included four examples of alleged retaliatory actions, including reassigning her to a basement office and replacing her with a white professor for a class she had taught for years. The Sixth Circuit concluded that as a matter of law, these were discrete events that occurred over a long time period and did not constitute a hostile and offensive work environment. Regardless of the connection between the alleged events and her earlier EEOC charge, claims of retaliatory harassment require demonstration of a hostile and offensive environment.

The Sixth Circuit also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Burlington Northern decision only requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the retaliatory conduct would deter a reasonable person from pursuing legal claims against the employer. That case did not deal with claims of retaliatory harassment and the hostile and offensive work environment requirement applies in that context.

Employers should be cautious when interpreting the extent of this decision. The Fourth Circuit and other federal courts have in recent years concluded that use of racial slurs almost automatically meets the requirement for a hostile work environment. Also, seemingly disparate events that occur within a short time period could be considered adequate to meet this test. However, retaliatory harassment claims should be evaluated taking into account the need for the alleged conduct to be more than an irritant or disappointment to the complaining party.

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