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4th Circuit Ruling on hostile environment

In order to successfully support a claim of hostile work environment under Title VII, an employee must show that the offending conduct was "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive work environment." One federal appellate court recently held that offensive conduct not witnessed by an individual may still contribute to that individual's claim that a workplace environment was hostile, and should be admitted as part of the employee's Title VII lawsuit. Ziskie v. Mineta, No. 06-2060 (4th Circ. November 14, 2008).

The Fourth Circuit's position on this matter is summed up in one cogent sentence: "Our cases have sought to distinguish between those situations that indeed present serious impediments to minority and female workers and those situations when human nature simply is not at its best." However, employers should not view this statement as an invitation to classify all discrimination complaints as personality conflicts. To avoid legal liability, employers should assure that complaints of harassment and discrimination are promptly and thoroughly investigated, and that problematic situations are dealt with appropriately. In addition, employers should not assume that actions that took place outside of the presence of a complaining employee will be excluded in a subsequent Title VII action filed by that employee.


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