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Jury to decide if work environment was hostile

A woman who claimed she was repeatedly subjected to racial slurs by the minor son of a supervisor can move forward with her hostile work environment suit.

The plaintiff in Chapman v. Oakland Living Center Inc., Tonya R. Chapman, alleges that she was subjected to multiple instances of racial harassment and other discrimination during two periods of employment with the defendant Oakland Living Center Inc.

According to Chapman, she was compelled to resign for good in the summer of 2018 after repeatedly being called a racial slur by a six-year-old who is the son of an OLC supervisor (defendant Steve Smith) and the grandson of OLC’s owners (defendants Arlene and Michael Smith).

A U.S. District Court awarded summary judgment to OLC on the plaintiff’s hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims under both Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, finding that Chapman had failed to show that the conduct at issue was imputable to the employer.

But on appeal, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the district court erred by not considering whether OLC had constructive knowledge of the harassment.

It said that the court disregarded Chapman’s testimony that she reported the harassment, finding it was inconsistent with a statement in her EEOC charge that in response to a July 2018 incident, “I told [the boy] to stop, but I did not report it.” But the Fourth Circuit said that the competing interpretations of the EEOC charge created an issue of fact for the jury.

The district court also found that OLC took steps reasonably likely to stop the harassment. But the Fourth Circuit said there was a genuine dispute of fact as to whether the response to the first August 2018 incident was reasonably calculated to prevent further harassment. Accordingly, it vacated the district court’s award of summary judgment on the hostile work environment claim.

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