In a decision handed down Thursday, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court overturned a ruling by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that awarded over $600,000 in back and front pay to a former employee who claimed racial discrimination. In the case of Infinity Broadcasting Corp. v. PA Human Relations Commission, the Court overturned the award, finding that the Employer’s distribution of a racially insensitive book was not sufficient to demonstrate a severe and pervasive hostile work environment. The facts were fairly simple. Shawn Brooks had worked as a salesperson, selling radio advertising in connection with the Employer’s broadcasts of Philadelphia Eagles games. At some time, the Employer determined that a Caucasian female on the sales team was dressing inappropriately for their professional setting, so, in an attempt to address the employee’s dress without singling her out for attention, the sales manager distributed to all salespeople a book entitled “New Dress for Success.” It is important to note that the manager had not read the book but had it recommended to him. Brooks took the book and read it, only to discover such racially offensive tips as:
(i) “When selling to middle-class Blacks, you can not dress like a ghetto Black.” (ii) “You should avoid a solid dark blue [suit], it has a very negative association for Blacks.” (iii) “When selling to them [African-Americans], you can wear nothing that carries an establishment touch. . . . you must not wear the traditional suit, shirt and tie uniform.” (iv) “Women are much better at selling to blacks because they are considered to be outside the establishment.” (v) “Almost all members of Northern ghettos who are in lower socioeconomic groups are understandably antiestablishment.”
The book also suggested that sales people, and all those who wish to be successful, need to “dress very white.” Brooks, who is African-American, immediately contacted the Employer’s HR Director to complain about the book. The HR Director agreed that the book was insensitive and communicated Brooks’ concerns to the manager who had distributed the book. That manager immediately collected the books from his staff. Brooks, however, claimed that he felt he no longer could work in that environment and that he felt that the distribution of the book caused him to feel as if the book’s content was endorsed by the Employer. As a result, Brooks quit, arguing that he was constructively discharged. Brooks then filed a complaint with the PHRC, alleging that the distribution of the book created a racially hostile work environment. Brooks offered nothing else in the Complaint – other than the book – to support his claim. The PHRC conducted a hearing at which time Brooks offered additional testimony of alleged incidents that contributed to the hostile environment. After the hearing, the PHRC awarded over $600,000 in damages, along with other injunctive relief. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court ruled first that the PHRC was not permitted to consider the additional testimony from Brooks, since that information was not included in the Complaint. Then, based upon the book incident itself, the Commonwealth Court found that the incident, while certainly insensitive and offensive, was not so severe and pervasive as to constitute a hostile environment. The case demonstrates, once again, that a single incident, especially one that is addressed by the Employer, can be insufficient to constitute a hostile work environment. Also, the case demonstrates the importance of specificity in the Complaint.