The Elements Of A Hostile Work Environment Claim

This article appears in the November 2021 issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.

Brandon Bates, an African Ameri­can man, has held multiple positions in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. Bates eventu­ally reached, and currently maintains, the position of Captain. Throughout his employment, Paul Carbo, a white male, was his supervisor.

Bates sued the County and various County employees, alleging he suf­fered discrimination throughout his tenure at the facility. Bates separated the incidents into two distinct time periods, pre- and post- January 19, 2019, when the Defendants’ behavior towards Bates significantly escalated.

The first alleged discriminatory action occurred in 1999 when an officer referred to Bates as “f***ing useless.” The following year, a main­tenance supervisor threatened that he would bring Bates “back 100 years to a time significantly closer to slavery.” Approximately a year later, another officer began to refer to Bates as “H.N.I.C.” or “Head N-word in Charge.”

Others replicated this behavior and began to direct racial slurs at Bates. Bates claimed that in 2005, an officer called him a “trained monkey” on at least two occasions and encouraged his subordinates to “blame their issues on the black man.” Another officer called him, and other black employees, the “n-word” while another stated, “Blacks are no good.”

On January 23, 2018, Carbo ques­tioned Bates in a derogatory manner in front of other staff members and demanded “why is this black dummy on the floor?!” Offended, Bates filed a grievance against Carbo that same day. His grievances, however, fell on deaf ears, resulting in Bates sending multiple follow-up emails.

After a third follow-up email, the Warden approached Bates and told him that “if this complaint doesn’t go away, you’re fired.” These threats spanned from February 2018 until January 19, 2019. Eventually, Carbo was directed to undergo sensitivity training, but Bates alleged the Warden and the County failed to take steps to ensure Carbo complied with that directive.

Bates alleged that after January 19, 2019, the discrimination and ha­rassment intensified. An officer kicked off this series of events when he began to question Bates’s qualifications, suggesting he was just a “fill-in” and that he wasn’t a “real Captain.” On August 15, 2019, another officer stated that Bates was doing “typical n***** shit.” Moreover, the Warden became more aggressive in demanding Bates drop his grievances. This all came to a head when the Warden cornered Bates, pointed his finger at Bates’s face, raised his voice, and told him to withdraw his complaints “or else.”

The County filed a motion to dismiss all the various claims in Bates’ lawsuit. A federal trial court rejected virtually all of the motion.

The Court noted that “to prove [a] hostile work environment under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that: (1) they suffered intentional discrimination because of their protected class; (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive; (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected him; (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstance; and (5) respondeat superior liability exits.

“Bates satisfies the first element. Here, the racial discrimination was overt. Bates is an African American man, and his complaint asserts that Defendants used racial epithets mul­tiple times throughout his tenure at the facility. Not only was he subjected to racial slurs, Defendants and other employees would make other racist comments such as: ‘just blame your issues on the black man;’ ‘Blacks are no good;’ and ‘not being a real captain,’ but instead a ‘fill-in.’

“Element two is also satisfied. Here, the discrimination was severe because multiple employees made ra­cially charged comments and insults. Additionally, Bates’s supervisor, the Warden, intimidated Bates when he threatened to fire him unless he with­drew his complaints against another co-worker. Finally, the discrimination was pervasive as it spanned multiple years and included at least six individ­uals who used racial slurs.

“Elements three and four are also satisfied. Here, Bates alleges that his experiences resulted in ‘physical and emotional distress.’ Thus, the third element is satisfied. Moreover, a rea­sonable employee in Bates’s position would have been detrimentally affected by the name calling, racial slurs, and the threats to their job. Thus, element four is satisfied as well.

“Lastly, Bates satisfies the fifth element. Under the theory of respondeat superior, an employer bears responsi­bility for the actions of its employees. Bates’s complaint focuses on alleged discrimination he suffered at the hands of the Warden and Carbo. There is no dispute that both individuals served as Bates’s supervisors. There is also no dispute that they were empowered by the County to take tangible employ­ment action. Accordingly, Bates has sufficiently plead all the elements of a hostile work environment claim.”

Bates v. Montgomery County, 2021 WL 4243432 (E.D. Pa. 2021).

Also in the November 2021 issue:

  • Apportioning Damages In Duty Of Fair Representation Cases
  • Contracts In The News
  • Who Chooses The Reasonable Accommodation Under The ADA?
  • Dissatisfaction With Fire Union/s Tactics Not Basis For Claim
  • Five-Day Suspension With Pay Not ‘Adverse Action’
  • Discipline Briefs
  • No Weingarten Violation Absent Request For Representation
  • Leaking Info To Press Not Part Of Firefighter’s Job
  • Laid Off Corrections Sergeant Loses Duty Of Fair Representation Claim
  • Firefighter Loses Stroke Claim
  • Temporary Reassignment Of Union President Justified By Business Necessity
  • Bargaining Updates: Is It Negotiable?
  • CPI Updates
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