Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Workplace Profanity Can Support Religious Discrimination Claim


A ruling by a federal District Court in Oregon should serve as a warning to employers that a co-worker’s use of profanity in the workplace may be enough to support a triable religious discrimination hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). In Griffin v. City of Portland, the Court noted that while not every use of profanity that occurred was enough to prove it was directed at the plaintiff because of her protected class, there was sufficient evidence to put the case in front of a jury.

For an excellent in-depth analysis of the case, I would direct you to an article authored by MaryJo Roberts, of my firm’s New Orleans office. For purposes of this posting the facts are as follows.

The plaintiff in the case, Kellymarie Griffin, described herself as a devout Christian. She alleged that co-workers frequently used profanity in the workplace, including the names of God and Jesus Christ in their curse words. The Plaintiff alleged that because of her deep religious beliefs, she was offended by such profanity and would inform her co-workers that such language was offensive to her. From the facts of the case, it appears that for the most part, such profanity from her co-workers was not directed at her because of her faith or on the basis of religious animus, and the co-workers generally refrained from cursing in her presence after she spoke with them.

More troubling were specific comments from plaintiff’s co-worker Theresa Lareau. According to the lawsuit, Lareau called plaintiff a “wacko” and told plaintiff that she prayed to something “that didn’t exist.” On one occasion, after plaintiff complained about profanity, Lareau allegedly told her "I'm sick of your Christian attitude, your Christian [expletive] all over your desk, and your Christian [expletive] all over the place" and Ms. Lareau accused Plaintiff of using her religion for attention.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming she was subjected to a religiously hostile work environment because of her religion. Her employer sought to have the case dismissed on summary judgment, but the District Court denied the City’s motion, allowing the case to proceed to trial. The Court held that "not every allegation of offensive conduct" by Plaintiff's co-workers will ultimately be pertinent to the question [of] whether Ms. Griffin was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her protected status”, but that she had "shown sufficient evidence of religiously discriminatory conduct to make out a claim for hostile work environment religious discrimination as a matter of law."

The Court’s opinion distinguished between profanity that directly implicated religious ideas and profanity that were simple secular epithets. Of note was the Court’s observation that the absence of a hostile intent was not enough to insulate an employer from liability and “if conduct occurred 'because of' a plaintiff's protected status, even if the actor does not intend hostility or even know that the conduct may be perceived as hostile, that conduct is relevant to whether the plaintiff experienced a hostile work environment." The Court also found there was a jury question as to whether the City had taken sufficient action to remedy the alleged religious discrimination.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijman@phelps.com