The Supreme Court has long held that under Title VII, an employee has a claim for hostile work environment discrimination if the workplace is “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment." Such a claim may be “ongoing,” “commonplace,” and “continuing.”
The Supreme Court has also held that there may be a hostile environment where the employer directs its discriminatory acts or practices at the protected group of which the plaintiff is a member, and not just at the plaintiff. Some courts use what they call the “totality of the circumstances” test to determine whether there was a hostile work environment where a group was involved.
But can a group of employees who each complain of a single hostile act aggregate their claims to show a hostile work environment, where they were not even aware of one another’s experiences or the hostile acts suffered by the others?
A federal appeals court has just held that while a plaintiff does not need to be the target of, or a witness to harassment in order to show harassment in the totality of the circumstances, “he does need to know about it.”
That is, each employee must show that she was individually aware of or knew about the harassment experienced by the other plaintiffs. As the Court said, “An event should only be considered part of the totality of the circumstances if an individual employee claimed he was aware of it.”