Fourth Circuit discusses employers’ duty to combat hostile work environments created by third parties

Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor a plaintiff filing suit over a racially hostile work environment.  The opinion contains an important discussion of employers’ responsibility to combat hostile work environments created by anonymous third parties.

The plaintiff in the case, an African American flight attendant with United Airlines, received an anonymous racist death threat in her company mailbox.  When she complained, her employer conducted a perfunctory investigation that failed to identify any suspects.  It made no attempt to install surveillance cameras around the company mail boxes, and did not contact the police.  Instead, two and half months after the death threat was delivered, it circulated an e-mail informing employees that it was investigating “inappropriate and offensive material,” and instructed employees to notify a manager if they had any knowledge regarding the unspecified activity.  Months after the e-mail was circulated, the plaintiff and four additional African American flight attendants received more anonymous racist death threats.

The district court found that while the anonymous notes were sufficient to create a hostile work environment, liability could not be attributed to United.  Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit reversed.  It agreed that the notes were sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment.  It also found that United had not adequately responded to the first death threat, and therefore could be found liable for the hostile work environment the plaintiff endured.

The Court noted that an employer can be liable for a hostile work environment created by a third party “if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take effective action to stop it…by responding with remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment.”  It held that “[a]n employer is not subject to a lesser standard simply because an anonymous actor is responsible for the offensive conduct.”  Given the severity of the threats at issue, the Court held that “a reasonable jury could find that United’s response was neither prompt nor reasonably calculated to end the harassment.”

The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous panel decision can be accessed here.