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Whether a hostile work environment existed shall be determined by whether a reasonable person, in the totality of circumstances, would have perceived the conduct at issue as substantially interfering with the plaintiff's employment or having the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive employment environment. Relevant circumstances may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. Importantly, the question of whether conduct is severe or pervasive is "quintessentially a question of fact."
The employees claimed that their manager had demeaning behavior toward the employer's black workers and subjected them to harassment and a hostile work environment. A vice president of the employer overheard what he believed to be a racially insensitive remark made by the manager and another supervisor and worker both testified that they thought the manager was a racist. The employees sued their former employer alleging they were terminated because they were black and they were subjected to a racially hostile work environment. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied the employer's motion for judgment as a matter of law but granted its motion to vacate the lost-wages awards. Both sides appealed.
Was the complained-of conduct sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment?
The appellate court found that based on the evidence presented the district court did not err in declining to grant the motion for a judgment as a matter of law on the basis that the complained-of conduct was insufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. Based on the vice president's first-hand knowledge of the manager's racial comment, the employer had actual notice of the hostile work environment that the manager created. Despite the evidence of a hostile work environment, the employees simply failed as a matter of state law to present sufficient "specific and definite evidence" of emotional distress. The employees were not entitled to recover damages for lost wages because they did not lose any wages as a consequence of the unlawful conduct attributable to the employer.