Fourth Circuit Confirms Standard For A Retaliatory Hostile Work Environment

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt

In Laurent-Workman v. Wormuth, No. 21-1766 (4th Cir. 2022), the Fourth Circuit confirmed that Title VII’s prohibition against retaliation for complaints about discrimination includes creating a hostile work environment as a category of prohibited retaliation. 

In the case, the employee had raised a claim of retaliatory hostile work environment amongst her list of claims against her former employer.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Burling Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White made clear that retaliation includes actions that are “materially adverse” and might have “dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

Using this guide point, the Fourth Circuit held that a hostile work environment claim based on retaliation must allege “that the retaliatory conduct (1) was unwelcome, (2) was sufficiently severe or pervasive that it would dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination, and (3) can be attributed to the employer.”

Using language that has often shown up in Title VII cases, the Fourth Circuit also confirmed that “petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience” are not actionable.  The Court did caution that wile minor incidents themselves may not be sufficient to establish a claim, within the totality of the circumstances they can contribute to the retaliatory hostile work environment.

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