242 F.3d 179 (4th Cir. 2001), 99-2393, Spriggs v Diamond Auto Glass

Docket Nº:99-2393.
Citation:242 F.3d 179
Case Date:February 22, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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242 F.3d 179 (4th Cir. 2001)




No. 99-2393.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 22, 2001

Argued: September 28, 2000.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore.

Frederic N. Smalkin, District Judge. (CA-97-1449-S, CA-98-1370-S)

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Argued: Vickie Inge Fang, Herbert Dubin, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellant.

Angus Robert Everton, Morgan, Shelsby, Carlo, Downs & Everton, Hunt Valley, Maryland, for Appellees. On Brief: Alex T. Sliheet, Herbert Dubin, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellant. Jonathan D. Fishbane, Roetzel & Andress, Naples, Florida, for Appellees.

Before Luttig and King, Circuit Judges, and Hamilton, Senior Circuit Judge.

Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Judge King wrote the opinion, in which Judge Luttig and Senior Judge Hamilton joined.


King, Circuit Judge

James H. Spriggs appeals the district court's award of summary judgment to his former employer, Diamond Auto Glass ("Diamond"), in Spriggs's action alleging racial discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17. As we explain below, genuine issues of material fact remain to be resolved in this dispute; we therefore vacate the lower court's judgment and remand the matter for trial.


This case is before us for the second time. In Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 165 F.3d 1015 (4th Cir. 1999) (Spriggs I), we briefly outlined the facts as alleged in the complaint. Therein we noted that Spriggs, an African-American, had been employed by Diamond as a customer service representative in its Forestville, Maryland store from July 1993 until August

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1995,1 and again from September 1996 until February 1997. On both occasions, Spriggs left Diamond's employ dissatisfied with the company's response to certain actions taken toward him by his white supervisor, Ernest Stickell. The details of these events having now been more fully developed through the discovery process, we relate them here in the light most favorable to Spriggs. See Hawkins v. PepsiCo, Inc., 203 F.3d 274, 276-77 (4th Cir.) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 121 S.Ct. 181 (2000).



At his deposition, Spriggs testified that he left Diamond the first time because of Stickell's incessant racial slurs, insults, and epithets. Indeed, Stickell rarely hesitated to vilify anyone of African descent, including Diamond employees (whom he proclaimed "niggers" or "monkeys") and customers of the business. Not even Stickell's wife, an African-American, was off-limits, as Stickell repeatedly referred to her as a "black bitch" in Spriggs's presence. Stickell often became enraged during telephone conversations with his wife, causing him to "fly into a barrage of racial obscenities towards her and slam the phone down. She would call back. Once again, she was a no-good nasty bitch. It was continuous daily." J.A. 195.


Spriggs was eventually persuaded to return to the Forestville store on management's assurance that Stickell would be kept in check. It quickly became clear, however, that Diamond would not deliver on its promise, as Stickell's behavior did not improve, but actually worsened. In addition to maintaining his routine of talking about his wife in racially derogatory terms, Stickell habitually called Spriggs a "monkey," "dumb monkey," and "nigger." In one particularly egregious episode, Stickell placed a picture of a monkey between the pages of a parts manual (known as a "NAG book") that Spriggs regularly used. Stickell had captioned the picture with X's and O's, along with the notation "so you'll never forget who you are." J.A. 209.

On Thursday, February 6, 1997, Spriggs walked out of the Forestville store "to alleviate the onslaught." J.A. 211. Spriggs attempted to return to work the following Monday, February 10, but Stickell denied him access to the premises. A dialogue ensued involving Spriggs and various representatives of Diamond, including its president, Richard Rutta. As a result of these discussions, Spriggs was invited to resume working on March 10, 1997. When Spriggs arrived on the appointed date, however, Stickell presented him with a formal list of job duties, which Spriggs believed to be unduly onerous and racially motivated. Rather than accept the new conditions, Spriggs resigned his employment.


Spriggs filed suit in the District of Maryland on April 30, 1997, against Diamond, Rutta, and Stickell. The complaint alleged that the defendants had violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by subjecting Spriggs to a racially hostile work environment during both of his terms of employment. When Spriggs protested his treatment, Stickell retaliated by imposing unreasonable working conditions. This atmosphere of hostility and retaliation reached its crescendo with the events of March 10, 1997, resulting in his constructive discharge.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) on the ground that Spriggs had been an at-will employee of Diamond and, as such, could not avail himself of§ 1981, which guarantees to persons the right "to make

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and enforce contracts." 42 U.S.C. § 1981(a). The district court agreed with the defendants' position, and it ordered the complaint dismissed with prejudice on October 15, 1997. Following the lower court's denial on October 27, 1997, of his motion for reconsideration, Spriggs filed a timely notice of appeal.

Subsequently, on November 19, 1997, Spriggs submitted a verified charge to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), averring that he had been discriminated against on account of his race, in contravention of Title VII. The EEOC referred the charge to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which investigated the matter. On January 30, 1998, after the termination of the state administrative proceedings, the EEOC issued Spriggs a rightto-sue letter. See 29 C.F.R. § 1601.28(b). Thereafter, on April 29, 1998, Spriggs filed a second complaint in the district court, essentially mimicking the factual allegations of the § 1981 complaint but asserting entitlement to relief under Title VII.2

On January 28, 1999, during the pendency of the Title VII proceedings, we issued our decision in Spriggs I. Therein, we reversed the district court's dismissal of the § 1981 complaint, holding that because "an at-will employment relationship is contractual... such relationships may therefore serve as predicate contracts for § 1981 claims." Spriggs I, 165 F.3d at 1018-19. Our reversal necessitated that the case be remanded for further proceedings.

By its order of March 12, 1999, the district court consolidated the Title VII action with the § 1981 case on remand. A brief period of discovery ensued, at the close of which the defendants moved for summary judgment. On September 10, 1999, the district court entered a final order awarding summary judgment to each defendant on all claims. Spriggs appeals the judgment below only as to Diamond, having abandoned his claims against the individual defendants.3


We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Kubicko v. Ogden Logistics Servs., 181 F.3d 544, 551 (4th Cir. 1999). Summary judgment is appropriate only in those cases where the pleadings, affidavits, and responses to discovery"show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A material fact is one "that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A disputed fact presents a genuine issue "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Id.


To survive summary judgment for Diamond on his claims of a racially hostile work environment, Spriggs must demonstrate that a reasonable jury could find Stickell's harassment (1) unwelcome; (2) based on race; and (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere.

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See Causey v. Balog, 162 F.3d 795, 801 (4th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). Further, even if the record supports the conclusion that a triable issue exists with regard to each of these three elements, Spriggs may not prevail absent sufficient evidence of a fourth element: that "there is some basis for imposing liability" on Diamond. Id. The elements are the same under either § 1981 or Title VII. Id. at 804 (citing Gairola v. Virginia Dep't of Gen. Servs., 753 F.2d 1281, 1285 (4th Cir. 1985)).4

There is no genuine dispute that Stickell's actions and comments were both unwelcome and based on race. We will therefore focus on the third and fourth elements of the hostile work environment claims: whether the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive, and whether liability for Stickell's conduct should be imputed to Diamond.


The degree of hostility or abuse to which Spriggs was exposed can only be determined by examining the totality of the circumstances. See Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993). Relevant considerations "may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance." Id. To be actionable, the conduct must create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment, and the victim must also perceive the environment to be abusive. Lissau v. Southern Food Serv., Inc., 159 F.3d 177, 183 (4th Cir. 1998) (citing Harris).


During his initial term with Diamond,...

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