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Tenth Circuit Finds that Corporations Cannot Suffer From A Hostile Work Environment

A cleaning company owned by two white women had a cleaning contract with a city airport. Throughout the period of the contract, the cleaning company’s owners and employees worked with a contract-compliance technician at the airport to arrange for cleaning services. According to the owners of the cleaning company, the technician, an African American male, made discriminatory comments regarding the owners’ gender and race and made the work environment miserable for their employees. When the owners of the cleaning company complained that the airport staff was not treating them well and that the airport was discriminating against the company, the airport terminated the contract. Thereafter, the cleaning company sued the airport and the technician alleging gender and race-based discrimination and a violation of its constitutional rights.

The district court granted summary judgement in favor of the airport, but allowed the suit against the individual technician to proceed, finding that there were genuine issues of fact regarding whether the technician was motivated by racial and gender bias and whether the technician “created a hostile work environment vis-à-vis the plaintiff by acting in such a way as to make plaintiff’s contract unprofitable and its owners miserable.” The 10th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling as to the cleaning company’s hostile work environment claim against the technician. It held that the technician was entitled to qualified immunity on such a claim because an artificial entity could not prevail on a hostile-work-environment claim. The court noted that because such a claim has a subjective, as well as an objective, component, which presupposes feelings or thoughts, it was unlikely an artificial entity could succeed on such a claim.

This decision shows that while hostile work environmental claims can be made by individual employees, it is unlikely such claim will succeed when brought in the name of the corporation. For more information read Allstate Sweeping v. Calvin Black.

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