In the spring of 2015, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a single, isolated instance of harassment may give rise to an actionable hostile work environment claim under Title VII.
Traditionally, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court, which includes West Virginia, has been regarded as being an employer-friendly circuit regarding the outcomes of cases arising under federal employment laws. However, after the ruling in Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp., No. 13-1473 (May 7, 2015), this trend seems to be in decline.
In Boyer-Liberto, after the plaintiff complained that another employee called her a "porch monkey" on two occasions within 24 hours, she was fired. The United States District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed her claims on the basis that Boyer-Liberto was unable to show that she was subjected to severe or pervasive conduct sufficient to give rise to a hostile work environment.
The case was then appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which historically had required more than a single incident (i.e., pervasive conduct) evidencing harassment to support any claims of a hostile work environment. On this occasion the court abandoned this view and found that while actionable hostile work environment claims usually involve a course of conduct repeated over time, an isolated incident of harassment can give rise to a hostile work environment claim if the incident is sufficiently severe and serious, as it was in this case.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court overturned its prior holding in Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp., which held that a singular and isolated offensive comment which did not alter the terms and conditions of an employee's employment cannot support a hostile work environment claim. As to Boyer-Liberto's retaliation claim, the Court held that employees are protected from retaliation when the employee "reports an isolated incident of harassment that is physically threatening or humiliating, even if a hostile work environment is not engendered by that incident alone."
The Fourth Circuit's ruling undoubtedly makes it easier for plaintiffs to proceed with claims for hostile work environment and even retaliation. Employers must not only investigate allegations of hostile work environment which involve repeated courses of conduct and patterns of behavior, but, as a result of Boyer-Liberto, even those that involve a single instance of conduct.
If you are an employee and believe that you are presently working in a hostile work environment and are concerned about the protection of your rights, or if you are an employer and are concerned with potential liability for a hostile work environment, call Amy Crossan, an expert in employment law, for a consultation at 304.523.8451.