Third Circuit Court of Appeals Addresses Strenuous Standard for Harassment Claims Under Title VII

By Ralph R. Smith, Esq.

In Greer v. Mondelez Global, Inc., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 20529 (3rd Cir. 2014), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a Summary Judgment Dismissal of an employee lawsuit alleging wrongful retaliation and workplace harassment premised upon allegations of race discrimination.  As part of its decision, the Third Circuit emphasized the difficult legal requirements that must be met under Title VII before a plaintiff can establish a workplace harassment claim of any kind.

The employee plaintiff in Greer claimed that a series of comments that happened over a five month period gave rise to a racially hostile work environment.  The plaintiff, who was black, was told by a pair of co-workers, amongst other things:  (1) that she probably voted for Obama; (2) that a hip-hop magazine found in the offices belonged to her; and (3) overheard a co-worker’s racially offensive joke.  The plaintiff complained about the racially-based comments to management, who eventually told the offending employees to stop their offensive conduct.

Shortly after being offered an opportunity to be considered for a workplace promotion, the plaintiff resigned and brought suit claiming racial retaliation and a racially hostile work environment under Title VII.  The District Court rejected plaintiff’s claims, and on appeal, the Third Circuit similarly found that none of plaintiff’s claims, most especially her allegations of workplace harassment, satisfied the necessary legal requirements.  After highlighting the standard for establishing workplace harassment, the appeals court noted that Title VII imposes a high threshold before workplace conduct can be considered severe, pervasive and regular enough to give rise to a hostile work environment.  In this case, the appeals court ultimately determined that the complained of conduct by plaintiff did not rise to the level of severity needed to establish a hostile workplace because the teasing and offhand comments made towards plaintiff did not discriminatorily change the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment.

While harassment claims are often difficult to prove as illustrated by the Greer case, the safest preventative for such claims arising in your workplace is effective employee training and rigorous adherence to anti-harassment procedures so your employees do not become subject to the kind of workplace conduct that could breed such litigation.  With the beginning of the New Year just around the corner, employers are provided with an ideal opportunity to conduct updated training to reinforce the strong message that should be sent to all employees that wrongful discrimination and/or harassment will not be tolerated in your workplace.