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Volunteer Firefighter Stated a Claim for Hostile Work Environment Based on Racial Harassment

Pernell Hammond v. Taneytown Volunteer Fire Company, Civil Action No. CCB-09-0746 (D. Md. October 13, 2009)

(November 7, 2009) amiya N. Wilkes, Summer Associate.

For more information, contact Paul Farquharson

Pernell Hammond (“Hammond”) was employed as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Taneytown Volunteer Fire Company (“Fire Company”). Hammond was the only African-American person employed by the Fire Company but resigned shortly after beginning his employment because of frequent racial harassment by his co-workers and supervisor. Hammond’s co-workers frequently used racist epithets and berated African-American people in front of him. Several firefighters began referring to Hammond using racist epithets as well. The harassment led Hammond to submit a letter of resignation, which he later revoked at the request of the President and Vice President of the Fire Company, upon their assurances that the employees responsible for the harassment would be disciplined. Nevertheless, the harassment continued. In response to the harassment, Hammond conducted an interview with a local newspaper. After the article was printed in the newspaper, Hammond began receiving threatening phone calls and his car tires were slashed. The harassment and threats ultimately led Hammond to resign from the Fire Company and move to a different town.

Hammond filed suit against the Fire Company in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Hammond alleged that the Fire Company’s actions violated MD. CODE ANN., CRIM. LAW § 10-304, which prohibits hate crimes based on race, and that such violations constituted wrongful discharge. Hammond also alleged that the Fire Company had violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by creating a hostile work environment and disparately treating and retaliating against Hammond because of his race. The Fire Company filed a Motion to Dismiss Hammond’s Complaint, pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6).

The Court granted the Fire Company’s Motion to Dismiss as to the alleged violations of the criminal law statutes, holding that a violation of MD. CODE ANN., CRIM. LAW § 10-304 did not amount to wrongful discharge and that a claim for wrongful discharge was not available because Hammond had an alternative statutory remedy, namely a cause of action for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

To succeed on a claim for a racially hostile work environment, under Fourth Circuit law, the employee must show that the harassment was: 1) unwelcome, 2) based on race, 3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment, and 4) and there was some basis for imposing liability on the employer. Based on those elements, the Court held that Hammond had sufficiently stated a claim for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The Court, therefore, denied the Fire Company’s Motion to Dismiss and determined that Hammond’s claim could go forward.