The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a judgment against a City of Houston employee who claimed that he was demoted for reporting another employee’s racially offensive comment made during a workplace meeting. According to the federal appellate court, the worker had not engaged in a protected activity by reporting the single, isolated remark. Satterwhite v. City of Houston, No. 14-20240, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal (March 3, 2015).
Courtney Satterwhite and Harry Singh were both employed by the City of Houston. During a meeting, Singh made a comment referencing Hitler. After the meeting, Satterwhite informed Singh that another employee was offended by his comment, and Singh apologized to that employee. Satterwhite then reported the comment to the City’s Deputy Director of Human Resources. The Director of Human Resources reported it to the Chief Deputy Controller, who verbally reprimanded Singh.
Several months later, Singh was promoted into a position in which he supervised Satterwhite. Singh disciplined and reprimanded Satterwhite on multiple occasions. Satterwhite told Singh that he believed that his reprimands were retaliation for having reported the Hitler comment. Singh later recommended that Satterwhite be demoted, resulting in his demotion and a decrease in his salary.
Satterwhite filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and received a right to sue notice. He then filed suit in a federal district court alleging retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of the City, and Satterwhite appealed this decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Concluding that Satterwhite’s activities were not protected under Title VII, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s judgment in favor of the City.
Satterwhite argued that he engaged in protected activities when he reported Singh’s comment to human resources. He also claimed that he engaged in protected activities when he participated in an investigation into Singh’s comments that the City Office of Inspector General had conducted.
According to the court, for these actions to qualify as protected activity, Satterwhite must have had a reasonable belief that Singh’s comment created a hostile work environment under Title VII. In judging whether a work environment is hostile, the Fifth Circuit noted, courts examine the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.
Given this framework, the court found, “[n] o reasonable person would believe that the single ‘Heil Hitler’ incident is actionable under Title VII.” Thus, the court ruled that Satterwhite failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.
According to Carolyn A. Russell, a shareholder in the Houston office of Ogletree Deakins, “The court found that a complaint about a one-time use of the phrase ‘Heil Hitler’ by a co-worker cannot form the basis of a Title VII retaliation claim because, among other things, a reasonable employee could not believe that a one-time use constituted an unlawful employment practice under Title VII. But, employers still should seek to eliminate the use of inflammatory and inappropriate language in the workplace. A complaint about the use of this phrase, or something similar, could form the basis of a harassment or retaliation complaint if it were linked to certain religious prejudices.”
Hera S. Arsen, J.D., Ph.D. is Managing Editor of firm publications in the Torrance, California office of Ogletree Deakins.