On September 1, 2021, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer, in a Title VII and Illinois Human Rights Act employment discrimination lawsuit, in which the plaintiff, an Egyptian Muslim pharmacist, alleged that: (i) the employer failed to accommodate his need for prayer breaks; (ii) disciplined and later fired him based on his race, religion, and national origin; (iii) retaliated against him for reporting racial and religious discrimination; and (iv) subjected him to a hostile work environment based on his race, religion, and national origin. Mahran v. Advocate Christ Medical Center, et al., No. 19-2911 (7th Cir. Sept. 1, 2021).
The plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim was based on allegations about offensive comments related to his race and national origin. His religious accommodation claim was based on his allegation that the employer denied prayer breaks to Muslims. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that his religious accommodation claim should be reinstated because an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee’s religious practice is itself actionable, regardless of whether an adverse employment action resulted. He also contended that his hostile work environment claim should be reinstated because the district court considered only the alleged offensive comments, instead of evaluating the totality of the evidence.
The parties had stipulated in the district court that the plaintiff must show that his unaccommodated religious practice was the basis of an adverse employment action, in order to establish a prima facie case of failure to accommodate his religious practice. Consequently, his subsequent argument, that an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee’s religious practice is actionable in and of itself, even without a resulting adverse job action, was waived on appeal.
With respect to his hostile work environment claim, the 7th Circuit agreed that separating evidence into one analytical category or other is mistaken, because under Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 834 F.3d 760, 765 (7th Cir. 2016), “all evidence belongs in a single pile and must be evaluated as a whole.” However, the 7th Circuit concluded that the evidence, even considered in its totality, was insufficient to establish a hostile work environment claim. To do so, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) the work environment was objectively and subjectively offensive; (2) the harassment was based on a protected classification or protected activity; (3) the conduct was severe or pervasive; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability. Whether workplace harassment is severe or pervasive depends on a variety of contextual factors, such as: (1) the frequency of the improper conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating; and (4) whether it unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance. In this case, the 7th Circuit concluded that the conduct at issue either lacked factual support or did not qualify as objectively offensive harassment based on a protected trait. Moreover, the alleged harassment was not so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of his employment. Isolated, offhand comments–not directed at an employee himself–do not amount to an objectively hostile work environment.