Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Fourth Circuit holds in Title VII case that a single oral comment does not create a hostile work environment

On May 12 a panel for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in which it further limited the instances in which employees can sue their employers under Title VII. The case, Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp., involved an employee who alleged that his employer retaliated against him by terminating his employment because he complained about an admittedly racially charged comment made by a co-worker. The Fourth Circuit upheld an order granting the employer's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on the basis that a single verbal comment is insufficient to create a hostile work environment and therefore the employee did not have an objectively reasonable belief that a violation of Title VII had occurred. According to the Court, absent an objectively reasonable belief that a violation of Title VII had occurred, the employee was not entitled to protection under Title VII. As noted in the dissenting opinion drafted by Circuit Judge King, the Court's opinion arguably leaves employees in the peculiar position of having to report what they believe to be hostile or harassing conduct, but being at their employer's mercy if they do so immediately after the conduct occurs and before it becomes sufficiently egregious or repetitive to constitute an objectively hostile working environment.

(contributed by Sandi R. Wilson)

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