Appeals Court holds that isolated Incidents of Harassment can be sufficient for Hostile Work Environment Lawsuit

For a very long time, the 4th Circuit had set a very high standard holding that a hostile work environment claim cannot survive unless it was pervasive and on-going. This year, the 4th Circuit finally reversed itself and reinstated a former cocktail waitress’s hostile work environment and retaliation lawsuit, stating that isolated incidents of verbal harassment may be sufficient grounds to file a claim.


The former waitress who filed the initial complaint claimed that she was retaliated against after reporting a single severe incident of verbal harassment. According to her lawsuit, one of her managers called her a “porch monkey” during one of her shifts as a cocktail waitress at a hotel. After she went to the management office to report the incident, the harassing manager pulled her aside and used the epithet again, and stated that he was going to go to the hotel owner to complain. Shortly after the incident, the waitress was fired. The owner of the hotel testified that he fired her after hearing of her racial harassment allegations and inquiring about her performance. The waitress filed a hostile work environment and retaliation lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court dismissed her case, and a 4th Circuit panel affirmed its decision. An en banc appeals court, however, voted to reinstate both of the lawsuit charges. The ruling stated, “A reasonable jury could find that [the manager’s] two uses of the 'porch monkey' epithet — whether viewed as single incident or as a pair of discrete instances of harassment — were severe enough to engender a hostile work environment.” It asserted an employee is protected from retaliation for opposing an act of harassment as long as he or she reasonably believes that a hostile work environment exists. According to the court, this protection holds even if the harassment consists of a single isolated incident. In addition, the employee does not need for additional evidence that a hostile work environment is likely to occur or is in the process of developing.

Legal Ramifications of the Case

Prior to this decision, many courts held that individual incidents of verbal harassment were insufficient to establish the existence of a hostile work environment pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts. They had asserted that in order for harassment to constitute hostile work environment pursuant to Title VII, it had to be severe and pervasive enough to disrupt the employee’s ability to work. The court’s decision in this case establishes a lower bar for filing a hostile work environment claim, stating that isolated incidents of verbal harassment may be sufficient to establish the presence of a hostile work environment. This decision brought the Federal Courts more in line with the New York City Human Rights law which is still more liberal, holding that even a single incident may be sufficient for discrimination, leaving the issue of severity and repetition to be considered when calculating damages. This is a great result for workers that have often faced harassment or discrimination.

The Lawyers at Akin Law Group are committed to fighting Workplace Harassment and Retaliation

If you have faced harassment, discrimination or retaliation at work, or are unsure as to whether your unique situation is actionable, do not hesitate to take action: call Akin Law Group at 212-825-1400 to schedule a free consultation with an experienced employment lawyer.