Allegedly Discriminatory Incidents Should Not Be Considered in Isolation


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reiterated that multiple incidents – including those that may be “facially neutral” – must be considered as a whole in support of an employee’s race discrimination claim.

In Williams v. New York City Housing Authority, an African-American housing manager (who spoke no Spanish) claimed that, for several years preceding her retirement, she had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment in violation of federal, state and local law. In support of her claim, she cited five incidents – a meeting at which a co-worker requested a “Spanish” manager, directions to transfer the housing manager to another location, a meeting regarding the housing manager’s exchanges with Spanish-speaking residents, the employer’s failure to fill certain job vacancies at the location, and the transfer of a Spanish-speaking superintendent away from the location.

To establish a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must produce evidence 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.” The federal trial court considered the incidents in isolation and found that each was insufficient to establish a hostile environment claim as a matter of law. It then also considered the first three incidents (which potentially referenced race) together, but declined to include the last two (which were not overtly racial), in finding that the “totality of circumstances” did not support the hostile environment claim.

On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed. It found that there were questions of fact as to the first three incidents that could support the housing manager’s claims (including whether management knew of the co-worker’s potentially race-based statement, as well as the import of a transfer based on “cultural” reasons and not performance). But more importantly, the Second Circuit found that the district court improperly failed to include the 4th and 5th incidents in its totality analysis. As the Second Circuit noted, “This analysis is intended to provide courts with “a realistic view of the work environment.” These incidents are a “substantial part” of the housing manager’s argument that she was subjected to “an orchestrated effort to remove her from her position.” Whether or not these incidents, taken together, created a hostile work environment was, therefore, an issue for a jury to decide.

Employers should understand that, when an employee is asserting a hostile work environment claim based on multiple incidents, it is important to look at all of the incidents together – even those that do not appear to be based on the protected characteristic in question.