‘Disrespect’ Does Not Equal ‘Hostile Work Environment’

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This article appears in the April issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.

Keith Armstrong, who is African-American, was a Jersey City police officer. Armstrong had no serious complaints with the Department or his supervisors until the internal affairs unit of the Department began investigating difficulties he was having with his neighbors. From 1996 to 2006, the Department had received 28 complaints from citizens about Armstrong. Most of the complaints were from Armstrong’s Jersey City neighbors, who were also African-American. The neighbors claimed that Armstrong targeted them for minor infractions in the neighborhood, such as traffic, parking, and municipal snow removal violations.

For example, while off duty in 2005, Armstrong had issued summonses to two neighbors for shoveling snow into the street. Armstrong had also become involved in an argument with a neighbor about moving a car. On that occasion, Armstrong called police headquarters for help, and uniformed patrol officers arrived. After further argument with the neighbor, Armstrong personally issued motor vehicle tickets to the neighbor, including one for failing to produce a driver’s license although the neighbor had displayed his license to the uniformed officers.

In August 2006, an African-American Assistant Prosecutor complained to the Department through a third party about Armstrong’s conduct toward her family, who were his neighbors. About the same time, an African-American Jersey City Councilwoman called the Department to report problems that Armstrong was having with other neighbors.

As the investigation progressed, Armstrong became combative, to the point where the Department ordered Armstrong to a fitness-for-duty examination. The doctor performing the evaluation described Armstrong as rigid, authoritarian, and suspicious. He stated that Armstrong demonstrated “blurred boundaries between his interests as a private citizen, and the responsibilities of a police officer,” and the doctor was concerned with Armstrong’s “apparent proclivity to use the authority of his role as a police officer to exert punishment on those he perceives as having crossed him in any way in his private life.” The doctor concluded that Armstrong was not fit for regular duty and recommended that he be assigned to light duty.

Eventually, Armstrong filed a lawsuit claiming that he was being discriminated against because of his race. In particular, Armstrong complained that he was subject to a hostile work environment.

An appeals court rejected Armstrong’s lawsuit. The Court found that “an actionable claim for a discriminatory hostile work environment frequently arises from repeated incidents that take place over time and by their cumulative effect make it unreasonable and unhealthy for the employee to remain in that work environment. A single event can also be so patently offensive that it could constitute severe conduct and prove a hostile work environment. It is, however, a rare and extreme case in which a single incident will be so severe that it would, from the perspective of a reasonable person, make the working environment hostile.

“Armstrong’s allegations of harassment are neither tied to evidence of racial animus nor so pervasive or severe that a reasonable African-American would view them as hostile racial discrimination rather than unpleasant aspects of his job. Other than the rumored reference to Armstrong as ‘the angry black guy,’ the remarks that Armstrong alleges were harassing and hostile had no racial content. Armstrong was offended because he believed he was disrespected as a law enforcement officer, but such offense does not equate with a racially-hostile work environment. Armstrong did not present any evidence of racial motivation in the investigation of his neighbors’ complaints.”

Armstrong v. City of Jersey City, 2012 WL 163007 (N.J. Super.A.D. 2012).