Last June a federal court held that the single use of the “N-word” was not enough to create a hostile workplace. This is not the first court to so hold — but not every court agrees.
A black replacement janitor claimed that he was subjected to race-based harassment by co-workers who called him “boy,” “black n—-r,” and treated him harshly. The Court held that the “hostile work environment claim fails because he did not provide sufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to conclude that he was subjected to harassing conduct that was severe or pervasive.”
Although “[o]ne instance of conduct that is sufficiently severe may be enough,” the Court ruled that “[w]e have stated that while there is no “magic number of slurs” that indicates a hostile work environment, an “unambiguously racial epithet falls on the ‘more severe’ end of the spectrum.”
However, the court said that “one utterance of the N-word has not generally been held to be severe enough to rise to the level of establishing liability.”
The court issued the now standard disclaimer when the “N-word” is used and the court holds that no hostile environment was created: “However, while referring to colleagues with such disrespectful language is deplorable and has no place in the workforce, one utterance of the n-word has not generally been held to be severe enough to rise to the level of establishing liability.”
One utterance of the “N-word” is not enough? Not according to another federal court which found the word so offensive as to be “severe” enough to make out a hostile workplace.
In the past we discussed the issue of “how many” – i.e., how many times an employee must endure a crude and offensive racial or other epithet for the situation to become a hostile work environment? We know that the federal test for a hostile work environment is, in sum, that the epithets must either be severe or pervasive. See one of our discussions from earlier in the year.
On May 24, 2013, we wrote that a federal appeals court in Washington, DC held that a single use of the “N-word” was enough to make out a hostile work environment because it is a racial epithet that is “deeply offensive.” The Court stated that “perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment” than “the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as ‘nigger’ by a supervisor.”
In that case the African-American employee, when given a promotion without a raise, was allegedly told “For a young black man smart like you, we are happy to have your expertise; I think I’m already paying you a lot of money.” Given this backdrop, the Court held that when a VP allegedly later told him to “get out of my office nigger,” this latter statement (if indeed made) was severe enough to, in and of itself, be considered a hostile work environment.
Its been awhile since we have seen a new lawsuit in which the “N-word” was used: but now the EEOC has accommodated us. It has just sued a South Carolina-based metal finishing company for subjecting an employee to months of being called the “N-word” by two white employees and then firing him when he complained.
Let’s see what the Court does with this one.