Does the N-word Constitute a Hostile Work Environment?

By: Eva Zelson
On: March 30, 2021

united states supreme court

What are the details of the case discrimination lawsuit filed alleging a hostile work environment because of the N-word?

The case involving an alleged hostile work environment because of the use of the N-word was filed by a man named Robert Collier, was an employee of the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, TX until 2016 when he was fired. During his employment with the hospital, Collier alleges that he and other Black employees were treated worse than other employees, and specifically highlighted an instance where the N-word was scratched onto the wall of an elevator. Mr. Collier filed a discrimination lawsuit against the hospital, but the suit was thrown out by a federal district court judge, who held that no jury would find it reasonable that the hospital created a hostile work environment because the slur was not directed specifically at Mr. Collier. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth District affirmed this ruling as well. Now, Mr. Collier is being assisted in his goal of having the case heard by the US Supreme Court, which is deciding whether to hear the case.

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The Arguments in Favor of the Hostile Work Environment Claim:

In a similar case, Justice Brett Kavanaugh recently joined a ruling allowing an employee of the lending firm Fannie Mae to sue their employer based on a single use of the N-word. In the opinion of the court, the use of the word “might well have been sufficient to establish a hostile work environment.” Kavanaugh further stated that no other word can elicit centuries of racial harassment reminders with more power than the N-word. In this way, the use of the N-word in Collier’s case could constitute the creation of a hostile work environment, especially if there is evidence of Collier bringing his concerns to his employer without them addressing the concerns.

The Defense Against the Hostile Work Environment Claims in this Case:

As stated by the ruling of the federal district court and Court of Appeals in this case, there could be little evidence to suggest that the employers were working to create a hostile work environment for Mr. Collier. Because the word scratched on the wall of the elevator was not necessarily directed at Mr. Collier and seemed to have little effect on his work performance, the Court found that no reasonable jury would find that the hospital had sufficiently hostile conduct. Some legal experts and judges have also said that a single use of the N-word is only an utterance and does not meet the standard for a hostile work environment.

What are the Potential Implications in this Case?

Depending on whether the case goes to the Supreme Court and how the justices rule, there could be several implications. First, if the case is not heard by the Supreme Court or if they rule against Mr. Collier, it could imply that usage of the N-word and other slurs in the workplace does not necessarily constitute illegal discrimination when it comes to the workplace. If the case is heard by the Supreme Court and if they rule in favor of Mr. Collier’s claim, that a single use of the N-word in an elevator constitutes a sufficiently hostile work environment, that may create an influx of cases involving uses of racial slurs in the workplace from only a single occurrence. This could have potential implications for employers and how quickly and seriously they respond to claims in the future.

What constitutes a hostile work environment?

Although there are dozens of ways for a workplace to be undesirable to work in, that does not always mean it qualifies as hostile. If the behavior you experience discriminates against you based on gender, religion, age, race, orientation, or disability, and if a reasonable person would find that behavior discriminatory, then it likely counts as a hostile work environment. Here are several ways that your workplace may qualify as hostile:

  • Inappropriate touching or gestures
  • Insensitive terms and offensive slurs
  • Unwanted sexual acts and language
  • Displaying racist/sexist pictures or words
  • Making comment/jokes about protected or disabled individuals

What are the Elements of a Hostile Work Environment Harassment Claim?

To make a hostile work environment harassment claim, the person filing the claim must show several elements. First, the claimant should be able to show that the workplace was both objectively and subjectively offensive in nature. Second, they must show that the harassment that they claim occurred. Third, the claimant should show that the conduct was both severe and/or pervasive in nature. Finally, the claimant should be able to show that the employer was liable for the hostile workplace harassment.

Can I Sue My Employer for Creating a Hostile Work Environment?

All employees have the right to work in a non-hostile workplace, and you have a right to sue your employer if your workplace does not meet that standard. However, you should be sure to speak with a skilled hostile workplace attorney, like those at Zeff Law Firm for a free consultation, to discuss your legal options for your claim.

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