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  • Are Courts Reluctant to Grant Summary Judgment in Hostile Work Environment Cases?

    Rivera v. Rochester Genesee Reg’l Transp. Auth., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 26211 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 21, 2012).

    The Second Circuit has recently reiterated its hesitancy to permit summary judgment in hostile work environment claims that present ambiguities as to the sufficiency of plaintiff’s case. In Rivera v. Rochester Genesee Reg’l Transp. Auth., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 26211 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 21, 2012) plaintiffs Enio Rivera and Michael Talton appealed a judgment of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York granting defendant, Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (“RGRTA”), summary judgment.  Plaintiffs presented claims of discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the New York State Human Rights law. However, the District Court found that Plaintiffs, employees of Lift Line, Inc., a subsidiary of RGRTA, failed to demonstrate that the harassment in Rivera’s instance amounted to anything more than a personal conflict between himself and a co-worker and that Talton had only proffered evidence of “isolated incidents of crude and offensive language taking place over a period of several years.”  Plaintiffs appealed the District Court’s decision arguing that they presented “sufficient evidence that they were subjected to a hostile work environment based on national origin and race, respectively, and thereafter were retaliated against” as a result of voicing their complaints.

    On appeal, the Second Circuit held that Talton had presented adequate evidence whereby a jury could find that Talton was subject to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. In particular, the Court noted that Talton had alleged repeated instances in which he was taunted with racial slurs by both his co-workers and his supervisor. In May 2006, Talton filed a claim of discrimination with the EEOC reporting the use of racial insults in the workplace and Lift Line’s failure to remedy the situation. Furthermore, Talton alleged that his supervisor suggested that his job was in jeopardy as a result of filing a complaint with the EEOC.

    However, Rivera’s claim presented convoluted facts and the Court was forced to dissect the evidence in order to distinguish those instances where the dispute was based on occurrences within his personal life from those that alleged harassment based on his national origin.  In 2001 a co-worker, Dominic Folino, began an affair with Rivera’s then wife.  The affair resulted in significant conflict between Rivera and Folino. Rivera alleged that from 2003-2007 he was repeatedly the target of racial epithets.  After filing an “incident report” and complaint letter, Rivera’s shift was changed, temporarily alleviating the conflict between Rivera and Folino. Rivera filed a total of seven complaints between March 2005 and September 2007 in which he accused Folino of threatening and harassing him. These internal complaints failed to suggest that the harassing conduct of Folino involved the use of racial slurs but utilized the terms “harassment,” “prejudice,” and “discrimination” when describing Folino’s conduct.  In March 2007, Rivera filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (“NYSDHR”), formally accusing Folino of harassment based on his national origin which was attributable to “an old boys club, specifically of Italian American descent that have a conspiracy against me and are trying to have me fired from Lift Line.”

    In analyzing Rivera’s case, the Court noted that a hostile work environment claim under Title VII requires the plaintiff to produce adequate evidence demonstrating “that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” In making this determination the court must “examine the totality of the circumstances” analyzing such factors as the frequency and severity of the discriminatory conduct, and whether it hinders or interferes with the victim’s job performance. The alleged hostile work environment must be viewed from an objective standpoint as well as the subjective perspective of the victim.

    The Court ultimately determined that Rivera had proffered enough evidence demonstrating that the alleged mistreatment involved ethnic animus. However, in making its determination the Court recognized “that this is a close call” as several of Rivera’s initial complaints did not reference the use of racial slurs or harassment based on national origin, rather he expressed his belief that much of the hostility resulted from personal issues between himself and Folino. However, Rivera’s NYSDHR complaint asserted conduct including the use of ethnic epithets that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [Rivera’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.” The Court held that a jury must sift through the evidence to determine whether it demonstrates harassment based on Rivera’s national origin or whether it stemmed from a personal conflict relating to the affair.  Nevertheless, the Second Circuit upheld the District Court’s grant of summary judgment on Rivera’s retaliation claim holding that Rivera failed to offer evidence demonstrating actions that would have been “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [Rivera’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.”

    If you or your company have any questions or concerns about these topics and would like further information, please email James G. Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com.

    A special thanks to Cynthia Thomas, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for helping with this post.