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Unpleasant, Off-Hand Comments Did Not Force African-American Employee to Quit, Court Holds

An African-American woman who described her employment as “satisfying” and a “great experience” in her resignation letter could not prove a hostile work environment/constructive charge claim (that is, that workplace harassment was so severe, based on her race, that she was forced to quit), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.FN1 The plaintiff in Evans v. International Paper was a star employee who had received high performance evaluations and numerous company awards, and her resignation “stunned” her department manager. She claimed to have quit based on the work environment, and specifically made the following claims:

  • her white supervisor criticized her managerial decisions, yelled at her, and allegedly helped white, male coworkers more than African American employees;

  • white, male co-workers allegedly made racially insensitive comments, and specifically said another African American female employee acted like she was “from a shoot em up, bang bang neighborhood”; told the plaintiff her natural hairstyle was unprofessional and nicknamed her “Angela Davis” (a black activist whom the employee thought had a similar hairstyle and who similarly “stirred up a lot of trouble”); and made comments about the plaintiff’s hair texture; and

  • the plaintiff believed there had been racial slurs made at her workplace in the past, but could not provide details.

The district court held these facts were insufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim. The appellate court affirmed for a different reason—the plaintiff had brought a hybrid hostile work environment/constructive discharge claim yet did not show her working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable employee would be compelled to resign. Not only did the record reflect “many positive aspects” of the plaintiff’s employment, the plaintiff herself said in her resignation letter that her time with the company was “on the whole, satisfying and productive,” and a “great experience.”FN2

Practical Takeaways

             Constructive discharge claims are a common feature in discrimination lawsuits brought by employees after they quit. Resignation letters and notes from exit interviews (in which the exiting employees may not claim discrimination) can be decisive in successfully undermining such claims.

Footnotes:

FN1:    Evans v. International Paper Co., No. 18-1448, 2019 WL 4018287 (4th Cir. 2019). The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from federal courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

FN2:    The court also upheld summary judgment dismissal of Plaintiff’s retaliation and unequal pay claims. Regarding retaliation, the Fourth Circuit held that the supposedly retaliatory actions—the plaintiff receiving a high, but not the highest, performance evaluation, and the co-worker’s alleged comment that the plaintiff “stirred up trouble”—did not constitute the type of materially adverse act that could support a retaliation claim. Regarding the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”) claim, the court reasoned that it was not enough for the plaintiff to show individuals with the same title earned more than her, but instead was required to show they had “virtually identical jobs” requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and under similar working conditions, which plaintiff did not do.