By Taylor Ey

Did the District Court Err in Granting Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment for Plaintiff’s Discrimination and Retaliation Claims Brought Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981?

On May 13, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case of Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp.  Plaintiff Reya Boyer-Liberto was previously employed at Defendant Fontainebleau Corp., as a hostess at a restaurant in the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel.  At district court, Defendant submitted a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted because Plaintiff’s evidence of offensive conduct, two conversations with a coworker, was too vague to support her claims of discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) or 42 U.S.C § 1981.  The Fourth Circuit, in a split decision, affirmed the district court’s decision to grant Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

The Facts Were Insufficient to Demonstrate a Discriminatorily Hostile or Abusive Environment

To find a hostile work environment as prohibited by Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, a plaintiff must show that the workplace is “permeated” with discriminatory insult, that the discrimination alters the conditions of the work environment and the discrimination creates an abusive working environment.  Plaintiff only provided two examples demonstrating discriminatory insult.  In both cases, each on consecutive days and with the same coworker, Plaintiff was in a conversation, where she was called a “porch monkey,” a severely insulting and racially derogatory name.  However, the Fourth Circuit explained that these two instances are isolated: Together they do not demonstrate that any one else made hostile statements towards her, or that this same employee made more of the same kind of statements.  Thus,  the Fourth Circuit concluded unanimously that the Plaintiff did not demonstrate a hostile work environment under Title VII or 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

The Facts Were Insufficient to Demonstrate That Plaintiff Had an Objectively Reasonable Belief That She Was Being Subjected to Unlawful Harassment

To demonstrate retaliation, a plaintiff must how that she “responded to an employment practice that she reasonably believed was unlawful.”  In this case, Plaintiff provided two examples where a coworker, who she later found out was a restaurant manager, called her a derogatory name.  The Fourth Circuit majority thought it was unlikely that Plaintiff would have an objectively reasonable belief that she was being unlawfully harassed because Plaintiff mistook the speaker for a coworker.  Further, the fact did not lead the majority to believe that this was the type of situation that would “ripen” into a hostile environment because both incidents were isolated.  Thus, the Fourth Circuit, split 2-1, concluded that Plaintiff did not demonstrate an objectively reasonable belief required for a retaliation claim under Title VII or 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court’s Decision

Because the facts in the record, taken in the light most favorable to the non-movant, did not provide sufficient evidence such that a reasonable juror could find that Plaintiff was working in a hostile work environment or that Plaintiff had an objective believe that she was subjected to unlawful harassment, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision granting Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

The Chief Judge Dissented in Part as to the Retaliation Claims

The Chief Judge authored a dissent, explaining that he agreed with the dissent in the case relied upon by the majority, Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp., 458 F.3d 332 (4th Cir. 2006).  In Jordan, Judge King described that the majority’s narrow interpretation of “what constitutes a reasonable belief” that a violation of Title VII is occurring is a “Catch-22 situation.”  As the law currently stands under Jordan, the employee can either choose to report the behavior, and risk losing her job, or continue working in the hostile environment, and lose her dignity.  Under the facts in this case, the Chief Judge stated that Plaintiff could have reasonably believed that the coworker’s conduct was actionable.  Thus, the Chief Judge respectfully dissented, and would have reversed the grant of summary judgment on Plaintiff’s retaliation claims.

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