4th Circuit Overrules Prior Precedent to Rule That a Single, Sufficiently Severe Incident of Harassment Can Support a Hostile Work Environment Claim

In Reya C. Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp. et al., the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, recently revived a discrimination suit against a Maryland hotel by an African-American former waitress alleging hostile work environment harassment and retaliation.  In doing so the Court held that a single instance of harassment – if sufficiently severe – could support a claim of hostile work environment harassment.  In doing so, the Court overruled a prior decision that said a single incident could not create a hostile work environment.

Former waitress Reya Boyer-Liberto sued the Fontainebleau Clarion Resort in Ocean City alleging that a white coworker had referred to her as a “porch monkey” in 2010.  The first alleged incident occurred when she carried a drink through the kitchen.  She alleged that after she reported the incident, the coworker had pulled her aside and repeated the epithet, as well as stated that she was going to “get her,” and was going to complain to the hotel’s owner to get her fired.  Apparently the coworker was friends with the owner, who testified that after the harassment allegation he had inquired as to Boyer-Liberto’s performance and had terminated her based upon a single negative evaluation.

Boyer-Liberto filed suit against the Fontainebleau in the District of Maryland in 2012 alleging violations of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The suit was initially dismissed by a district court judge, based upon prior case law that had held that a single incident of racial comment was insufficient to support a claim of hostile work environment harassment.  In 2014 a three-judge panel heard Boyer-Liberto’s appeal and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

However, on May 7th, the 4th Circuit, sitting en banc, overturned that decision.  The Court stated that the slur used was “degrading and humiliating” and sufficiently extreme to support her claim.  Judge Robert King wrote the opinion and was joined by eleven other judges in reinstating both the harassment and the discrimination claims.

In reinstating the retaliation claim, the Court held that “[a]n employee is protected from retaliation for opposing an isolated incident of harassment when she reasonably believes that a hostile work environment is in progress, with no requirement for additional evidence that a plan is in motion to create such an environment or that such an environment is likely to occur.”  The Court added that a jury could reject the harassment claim but still rule in favor of the plaintiff on the retaliation claim.

In dissent, Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer said Title VII was designed to stamp out pervasive discrimination, and not to punish employers for a worker’s utterance.  Two other judges separately agreed with Judge Niemeyer with regards to the hostile work environment claim, but wished to revive the retaliation claim.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, including discrimination, harassment and retaliation matters, for almost sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.

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