On February 14, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down its revised opinion in Johnson v. Halstead.
The case involved a claim by Johnson, a black male, that he had been subjected to a hostile work environment based on his race.
Specifically, Johnson was a sergeant with the Fort Worth Police Department. He claimed that over a three-year period he was subjected to a campaign of isolation, harassment, and ridicule because he is African-American.
The City hired investigators to look into his complaint and, after doing so, they agreed with Johnson.
When Johnson filed suit, he did not sue his harassers, however. Instead, he sued the Chief of Police, Jeffrey Halstead, for failing to take action and for allowing the harassment to continue.
Halstead raises a qualified immunity defense
Johnson filed what is called a Section 1983 claim. Section 1983 is a federal statute that allows lawsuits to be filed to be filed by persons who have been deprived of certain constitutional rights by government officials.
Many government officials, including police officers, can defend these lawsuits by invoking a qualified immunity defense. This means the government official will be immune from a lawsuit unless the injured party can prove two things:
First, that the government employee did, in fact, commit a constitutional violation, and
Second, that at the time of the violation, it was clearly established that the conduct at issue violated the Constitution.
In examining Halstead’s qualified immunity defense, the Fifth Circuit noted that a supervisor can be held liable for the hostile work environment created by his subordinates “if that official, by action or inaction, demonstrates a deliberate indifference to a plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”
Halstead argued that this rule of law was true if the hostile work environment was based on sex, because it was clearly established that such violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
He took the position, however, that it was not clearly established that such would violate the Equal Protection Clause if the hostile work environment was based on race.
The Fifth Circuit quickly rejected Halstead’s position. The Court held “it would necessarily follow that if the Constitution makes it unlawful to create a hostile workplace in response to a public employee’s sex, then it is also unlawful to engage in that hostility in response to a worker’s race.”
How much is necessary to create a hostile work environment?
Having rejected Halstead’s qualified immunity defense, the Fifth Circuit turned to the question of whether the facts alleged by Johnson were sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment.
The Court explained that 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 condition of the victim’s employment.”
The United Supreme Court has held that “simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents” are not enough to create a hostile work environment.
In Johnson’s case, however, the Fifth Circuit found that the harassment was so severe that it undermined Johnson’s ability to perform his job. As a result, the Court concluded that he had alleged sufficient facts to allow his lawsuit to proceed in the lower court.
This decision is a good example of courts drawing a line between minor incidents and severe harassment that creates a hostile work environment. These are the same rules the courts apply to non-government jobs.
If you believe you have been subjected to a hostile work environment based upon your sex, race, national origin or other protected class, give us a call to discuss your situation.
Panter Law Firm, PLLC, 7736 Old Canton Road, Suite B, Madison, MS 39110