Discriminatory and Nondiscriminatory Comments Can Combine to Create Hostile Work Environment


A hostile work environment can be created through a combination of both explicitly discriminatory and non-discriminatory (but offensive) comments, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It also held that the employee need not show that he was physically threatened or that the harassment interfered with his job performance in order to sustain a hostile work environment claim.

Under Title VII, hostile work environment harassment exists when the harassment is so severe or pervasive that it alters the employee’s work environment. In Rasmy v. Marriott Int’l, Inc., an employee sued for hostile work environment harassment based on his religion and national origin, as a Coptic Christian of Egyptian heritage. He claimed that following his complaints to human resources that co-workers engaged in wage theft, the co-workers retaliated by calling him derogatory names like “the mummy,” “camel,” “Egyptian rat,” and “pretentious Christian,” as well as other names that were not explicitly discriminatory. There were also other discriminatory comments that were not directed at him but purposely made in his presence. The district court dismissed his claims, finding that the discriminatory comments were not sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment and that the other comments were simply stray remarks that did not target the employee. In addition, it found that, even if the conduct were pervasive harassment, no hostile work environment existed because the employee had not been physically threatened and his work performance had not suffered.

On appeal, the Second Circuit stated that “when the same individuals engage in some harassment that is explicitly discriminatory and some that is not, the entire course of conduct is relevant to a hostile work environment claim.” It also found that “conduct not directly targeted at or spoken to an individual but purposefully taking place in his presence can nevertheless transform his work environment into a hostile or abusive one.” In addition, the Second Circuit found that an employee does not have to be physically threatened or experience interference with his work performance to sustain a claim of hostile work environment.