Hostile Work Environment Claims under FEHA – Hostility Must be Directed at the Plaintiff

Sometimes one employee learns of racially-motivated harassment visited upon another employee.  But even though such treatment is wrong and upsetting, and even though the employee who observes it may perceive a “hostile work environment” directed at fellow employees who are members of another ethnic group, can that person file a claim under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)?

The short answer is no, unless plainfiff can show that he or she was the subject of the hostility.  The case in question is Thompson v. City of Monrovia.  Among the things the plaintiff (who was white police officer) complained about was the placement of a “Buckwheat” character on an African-American officer’s screen saver; a statement that on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, people should celebrate the birthday of James Earl Ray; and ceratin statements and gestures made as a briefing that disparaged African Americans.

The court rejected Thompson’s clams for a variety of reasons, but of note was the court’s comment that Thomspon could not prevail on his hostile work environment claim “because he has not produced evidence that he was subjected to harassing comments or conduct because of his association with or advocacy on behalf of African-Americans.”

The court observed that Thompson, who was white, based his claim of a racially hostile work environment on conduct that targeted his African American colleague, Officer Cobb.  A plaintiff like Thompson, said the court, who is not within the protected class, may satisfy the “protected class” requirement based on his association with or advocacy on behalf of protected employees.  If Thompson produced evidence that he was personally subjected to unwelcome racial comments as a result of [his] association with or advocacy for protected employees,” he would satisfy the requirement that he was subjected to unwelcome racial harassment and the harassment was based on race.

Discrimination claims by persons who are not in the class of persons discriminated against are hard to prove and often fail.  A careful reading of this case is essential by any person contemplating such a lawsuit.   

We regularly advise employers and employees, as well as unions, about employment-related issues.  Feel free to contact our office if you need assistance in this area.