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Court decision strengthens anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protections for workers who complain about a hostile work environment

May 7, 2015: In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a single incident of harassment could be sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Court also ruled that the single incident could support a separate claim of unlawful retaliation under the Act if the employee were fired for complaining about it to the employer. The opinion is good news for Reya Boyer-Liberto, who was fired after complaining that a manager had twice called her a “porch monkey.”

A 3-judge panel of the Court had originally denied her claims, relying on a 2006 case, Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp., to hold that the manager’s conduct could not create a hostile work environment and so Ms. Boyer-Liberto’s complaint was also not protected by Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, because she couldn’t have reasonably believed that the racial harassment was severe or pervasive enough to make her workplace a hostile work environment. But review of Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp. by the full Court overruled the standard set in Jordan. The Court held in the May 7 opinion that a single incident of harassment can create a hostile work environment if it is “extremely serious.” The decision also discussed the particular racial epithet, calling it “odious” and “degrading and humiliating in the extreme.” The Court went on to hold separately that a hostile work environment does not have to exist already for an employee who complains to be protected by the anti-retaliation provision of the civil rights statute, but rather, that the employee is protected so long as he or she “reasonably believes that a hostile work environment is in progress,” which may be shown with a single incident if it is “physically threatening or humiliating.”

The Public Justice Center and Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association have been hoping for the opportunity to ask the Court to rethink Jordan since it was issued, so this is a particularly sweet victory for workers’ rights. In 2006, former Murnaghan Fellow Roscoe Jones, former PJC attorney Suzanne Sangree, and MWELA counsel Jonathan Puth filed a brief challenging the ruling in Jordan, but on a tie vote, the full Court had allowed it to stand. More recently, 2013-2014 Murnaghan Fellow Ilana Gelfman and MWELA members Stephen Chertkof and Douglas Huron filed an amicus brief in support of Ms. Boyer-Liberto. We are glad to see these important worker protections set right once again by the Court.

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