Join Club

NOVA Legal Beat: Does One ‘Appalling’ Incident Create a Hostile Work Environment?

NOVA Legal Beat logo

Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Mathew B. Tully of Tully Rinckey PLLC, an Arlington firm that specializes in federal employment and labor law, security clearance proceedings, and military law.

Q. If a supervisor does something appalling to a subordinate, but only just once, can he still create a hostile work environment?

A. By and large, courts have found that hostile work environments are not spontaneous. In most cases, they are many days, weeks, months, or years in the making. That is because anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibit employers from discriminating against employees with respect to their “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”

Rarely will a supervisor’s or co-worker’s single action or utterance be “sufficiently severe and pervasive” enough to have such an effect.

“Hostile work environments generally result only after an accumulation of discrete instances of harassment,” the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp. (2014). “Their very nature involves repeated conduct.” Due to this nature, the court in this case found one of the employer’s employees did not create a hostile work environment when she allegedly called the appellant, a hotel hostess, a racial slur.

The employer terminated the appellant over poor performance issues a little more than a month after it hired her, prompting her to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The court said “a coworker’s use of that term twice in a period of two days in discussions about a single incident was not, as a matter of law, so severe or pervasive as to change the terms and conditions” of the appellant’s employment.

In contrast, Okoli v. City of Baltimore (2011) involved an African American executive assistant who had suffered from a dozen incidents over a four-month period during which her supervisor, among other things, said he wanted to have sex with her in a Jacuzzi, inquired about her underwear, talked about his sex life with other women, fondled her leg under a table, and forcibly kissed her. The 4th Circuit in Okoli (2011) said the appellant presented a “strong claim for hostile work environment” and added that “some of the incidents may have been severe enough to be actionable in and of themselves.”

The court in Okoli explained further, that “a single incident [of sexual harassment that] was extraordinarily severe can be actionable.” The important question is: What type of incident qualifies as “extraordinarily severe?” In Whitten v. Fred’s, Inc. (2010), the 4th Circuit provided some guidance when it noted, “[E]ven a single incident of sexual assault sufficiently alters the conditions of the victim’s employment and clearly creates an abusive work environment for purposes of Title VII liability.” But even in cases involving sexual assault, the victim would need to prove the employer was liable for the attacker’s actions.

Employees should not tolerate a hostile work environment, and it is crucial for them to put employers on notice of any discriminatory conduct immediately. Consult with an experienced employment law attorney who could assess when the employer’s conduct was severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.

Mathew B. Tully is the founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. Located in Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C., Tully Rinckey PLLC’s attorneys practice federal employment law, military law, and security clearance representation. To speak with an attorney, call 703-525-4700 or to learn more visit

Recent Stories

In loving memory of Joseph Robert Kapacziewski, who passed away in 2023 at the age of 41.

In loving memory of James Stuart Edmonds, who passed away in 2023 at the age of 84.

A man was shot in front of a lounge on Columbia Pike early this morning, continuing a string of violent incidents.

Good Friday evening, Arlington. Today we published articles that were read a total of 17124 times… so far. 📈 Top stories The following are the most-read articles for today —…

YULA’s ultimate frisbee spring season is now open for registration. We offer programs for middle and high schoolers – open to all players, whether they are new or have previous experience.Middle SchoolIn the Middle School league, mixed-gender teams practice once during the week and have games on Sunday afternoons. Spring league is a fun, safe, and positive environment. The season begins mid-March and wraps up with a tournament in early June. There are several options for practice days, so we can often work around schedule conflicts with other sports & activities.High SchoolThe High School program is organized by school of attendance and teams are classified by gender. New players will learn the basics in a supportive, welcoming environment. Experienced players will continue to develop their skills, and enjoy competition with other high school programs. The season concludes with a state level championship tournament in late May.All players are guided by experienced coaches who emphasize sportsmanship and good spirit. Ultimate is a fun sport with great camaraderie!YULA does not want finances to limit anyone from participating. Our middle school program offers a “Pay What You Can” cost structure and our our high school program is offering a $50 discount to new players.Visit our website to register and learn more. Sign up with a friend, but don’t delay, the season starts in March!

Submit your own Announcement here.

The Arlington-Aachen High School exchange is returning this summer and currently accepting applicants.

The sister-city partnership started in 1993 by the Arlington Sister Cities Association, which seeks to promote Arlington’s international profile through a variety of exchanges in education, commerce, culture and the arts. The exchange, scheduled June 17th to July 4th, includes a two-week homestay in Aachen plus three days in Berlin. Knowledge of the German language is not required for the trip.

Former participants have this to say:

_”The Aachen exchange was an eye-opening experience where I was fully immersed in the life of a German student. I loved biking through the countryside to Belgium, having gelato and picnics in the town square, and hanging out with my German host student’s friends. My first time out of the country, the Aachen exchange taught me to keep an open mind, because you never know what could be a life changing experience.” – Kelly M._

Read More

Submit your own Announcement here.

Valentine Pop-Up at George Mason University

Valentine gifts for someone special or for yourself are here at George Mason University from noon -4pm on February 14, 2023. Satisfy your sweet tooth with Kingsbury Chocolates, find a handmade bag from Karina Gaull, pick up treats from Village

Standup Comedy Showcase Starring Matt Ruby (Comedy Central)

Dead Horse Comedy Productions brings together top comedians from the DMV and beyond for a live standup comedy show!

Matt Ruby, Headliner

Matt Ruby is a comedian, writer, and filmmaker from New York City. His comedy has been filmed by


Subscribe to our mailing list