Single Comment About Police Chief’s Chinese Ancestry Not Enough To Establish Hostile Work Environment

King Lum, who is of Chinese ancestry, was the Chief of Police for the County of Kauai in Hawaii. Leon Gonsalves was a member of the Police Commission that, in 2004, appointed Lum to a five-year term, although Gonsalves opposed Lum’s appointment. Lum’s appointment was rescinded after the Kauai County Council adopted a recommendation to cancel the contract based on findings that another commissioner had improperly influenced the process of selecting the Chief. Lum could have remained on the police force, but instead resigned.

Lum then sued Gonsalves and the other members of the Kauai County Council, alleging race discrimination. A federal court recently dealt with Lum’s claims against Gonsalves.

Lum contended that he was the victim of a hostile work environment created by Gonsalves. Lum cited a 2004 e-mail from Gonsalves that referred to Lum as “Hop Sing.” The Court found that the “Hop Sing” reference was insufficient to establish a claim for race discrimination.

The Court’s analysis was that “Lum’s hostile work environment claim requires his workplace to have been permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and/or insult sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of Lum’s employment and create an abusive or hostile work environment. Whether an environment is sufficiently hostile or abusive must be judged by looking at all the circumstances, 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.

“The single e-mail sent by Gonsalves to someone other than Lum, even if Lum later learned that the e-mail referred to Lum as ‘Hop Sing,’ is insufficient to have caused Lum’s workplace to have been permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and/or insult sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of Lum’s employment and create an abusive or hostile work environment. None of the cases cited by Lum indicates that a single stray remark can form the basis of a viable hostile work environment claim.”

Lum v. Kauai County Council, 2007 WL 3408003 (D.Haw. 2007).

This article appears in the January 2008 issue