On March 31, 2011, the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, in Gibbs v. Brown University, held that isolated incidents of harassment will not support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 unless the incidents are of an extremely serious nature. The Court found that a racially offensive email forwarded by an employee and racially insensitive comments about President Barack Obama, among other things, did not rise to the level of creating an objectively hostile work environment.

Background

Denise Gibbs, an African-American woman, worked in the Records Department at the Brown University Admissions Office along with two other full-time employees. Gibbs, the only African-American employee in her group, alleged that she began being discriminated against because of her race after a new supervisor took control of the Admissions Office in 2006. Specifically, Gibbs claimed that her new supervisor disliked minorities and treated her differently than other employees. She said that she was effectively demoted and subjected to a number of incidents by her co-workers that created a hostile work-environment.

Gibbs reported that that she was excluded from social activities, demeaned in front of her co-workers, treated with indifference or hostility, given less favorable work assignments, and unfairly reprimanded because she was African-American. Gibbs claimed that she was reprimanded in February 2008 for being a few minutes late to work; however, the next day a non-minority employee arrived late and was not disciplined. In another example, Gibbs alleged that while the office usually celebrated employee birthdays, she never received a birthday card or cake from her supervisor. She also complained that office supplies were placed “under lock and key” and that she had to ask for paper clips and other similar items.

In addition to these allegations, Gibbs identified two incidents that were explicitly racial in nature. In November 2007, Gibbs was forwarded a racially offensive and insensitive email from one of her Caucasian co-workers. During the 2008 presidential election, the same co-worker injected herself into a discussion among co-workers and said that if Barack Obama was elected President, he would be assassinated. The woman then said that “Obama would never be president because he was black.”

Gibbs sued Brown University, asserting several employment-related claims including racial discrimination under Section 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Gibbs claimed that the University had allowed her supervisors and co-workers to subject her to a hostile work environment.

The District Court’s Ruling

In an opinion written by Chief Judge Mary M. Lisi, the Court said that in analyzing a hostile work environment claim, it must distinguish between “innocuous behavior and severely hostile or abusive conduct.” Applying this directive, the Court ruled that much of the complained of conduct was not sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of Gibbs’s employment. The Court found that the incidents involving office supplies and birthday celebrations were ambiguous and devoid of a “clear racial component.” The Court said that “even assuming that the acts were laden with cloistered racial animus, the alleged conduct is too intermittent, nonthreatening and benign to rise to the level of severe and pervasive harassment that may be considered overtly racially offensive.” Therefore, the Court held that these allegations were not the kind of “repeated verbal attacks, physical intimidation, or humiliations that, in the aggregate, support a hostile work environment claim.”

The Court found that the racially offensive email and the comments about President Obama warranted separate consideration as to whether they created an actionable hostile work environment. The Court said that the “inflammatory email” was “objectively offensive” and the comments about President Obama had “objectively offensive racial overtones.” The Court, however, found that these two incidents, even when taken together with Gibbs’s other allegations of harassing conduct, did not “demonstrate a work environment so permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult” so as to create a hostile work environment. The Court described the comments about President Obama as the “the type of offhand utterance that, while lacking racial sensitivity, will not alone alter the conditions of employment.” Turning to the email, the Court found that while it was “outrageous and offensive,” and “has no place in the work environment,” it was not directed specifically toward Gibbs and did not rise to the level of being so serious in nature as to create a hostile work environment.

Accordingly, because the intensity and frequency of the incidents complained of were insufficient to make out a prima facie case of discrimination, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the University on the hostile work environment claim.

What Gibbs Means For Employers

Even though the Court ruled in favor of the employer on Gibbs’s hostile work environment claim, employers should not alter their commitment to prohibiting and preventing unlawful discrimination and harassment in the workplace. While the Court granted summary judgment for the employer because the allegations did not go beyond “the ordinary tribulations of the workplace,” employers should emphasize that inappropriate and offensive workplace behavior will not be tolerated and that employees who engage in such behavior will be subject to discipline . More specifically, employers should make it clear that any discussion of politics in the workplace that contains racial or other discriminatory animus is unacceptable.