The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to an en banc rehearing (in which all judges on the court will hear the case) of Boyer-Liberto v. Fountainebleau Corp. after a three-judge panel of the court ruled in May 2014 that the factual allegations in the case did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. The three-judge panel ruled that because a racial slur used in the workplace was limited to two occasions arising from a single incident, the plaintiff had not been subjected to a hostile work environment based on her race.
Ms. Boyer-Liberto based her EEOC Charge of Discrimination and subsequent lawsuit against her former employer on two conversations she had with a coworker about an incident that occurred on September 14, 2010. During those conversations, which were on two consecutive days, the coworker twice directed a racial slur at Ms. Boyer-Liberto. One week after the incident, Ms. Boyer-Liberto was terminated from her job. The United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment to the former employer, holding the offensive conduct was too isolated to support the plaintiff’s claims for discrimination and retaliation, and the three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed that decision. Although the appeals court agreed the term used was “derogatory and highly offensive,” it held “a co-worker’s use of that term twice in a period of two days in discussions about a single incident was not, as a matter of law, so severe or pervasive as to change the terms and conditions of Liberto’s employment so as to be legally discriminatory.”
The Fourth Circuit has agreed to rehear the case, but it is not clear Ms. Boyer-Liberto will fare better on the rehearing although she argued in her petition for rehearing that the three-judge panel’s decision was inconsistent with other court rulings. That panel had specifically addressed the other cases Ms. Boyer-Liberto argued supported her claim and distinguished each as involving a greater number of incidents occurring over a longer time period or involving conduct having long-term, ongoing consequences.
As the panel noted in this case, a hostile work environment exists when “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.” The Fourth Circuit’s upcoming decision in this case bears watching to see if the court takes the opportunity to expand what has been a relatively narrow definition of hostile work environment. Regardless, employers should promptly investigate any claims of harassment or discrimination, document those investigations, and act quickly to address any harassment or discrimination uncovered in the investigations.