For a harassment claim to be actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the workplace conduct “must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.” Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986). Employers frequently seek to escape liability for harassment by arguing that the discriminatory conduct alleged by the employee was too minor to create liability.
Now the Second Circuit Court of Appeal, in New York, has ruled that the single use of a racial slur can form the basis for a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, when viewed together with other seemingly “neutral,” i.e. non-racial, harassing behavior. Daniel v. T&M Protection Resources LLC, __ Fed.Appx. ___, 2017 WL 1476598 (2d Cir. Apr. 25, 2017).
In Daniel, an unrepresented employee, Otis Daniel, appealed a district court order dismissing his hostile work environment case against his former employer on summary judgment. Mr. Daniel had alleged numerous incidents of harassment during his 15-month period of employment. The vast majority of incidents alleged were not specifically racist, on their face. But, he also alleged that his supervisor once addressed him as “you fucking nigger.”
The Court held that the district court erred when it determined, as a matter of law, that Mr. Daniel failed to alleged facts sufficient to support a hostile work environment claim based on race. The Court explained, that “[b]ecause ‘some evidentiary basis’ existed for inferring that [a] ‘neutral’ incident was animated by hostility because of Daniel’s race, [the district court should have considered that evidence] as part of Daniel’s racial harassment claim.” Slip Op. at *2. That is, where a supervisor makes a racially-charged statement to his or her subordinate employee, on summary judgment a court should consider that fact together with other incidents the employee alleges were harassing, but not overtly racial in nature.
The Court did not need to rule on the question of whether the “one-time use of the slur ‘nigger’ from a supervisor to a subordinate can, by itself, support a hostile work environment claim.” Daniel, Slip Op. at *1 (emphasis added). However, the Court of Appeals did conclude that the lower court “improperly relied on our precedents when it rejected this possibility as a matter of law.” Id. at *1. The appellate court explained that Second Circuit case law does “not foreclose the possibility that the one-time use of a severe racial slur could, by itself, support a hostile work environment claim when evaluated in the cumulative reality of the work environment.” Id. at *1. The Court highlighted dicta in Rivera v. Rochester Genesee Reg’l Transp. Auth., 743 F.3d 11, 24 (2d Cir. 2014) that “‘perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as nigger by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates.’” Slip Op. at *1 (emph. added by Daniel court).
If you have been the victim of a racial slur, that illuminates the true motivation behind other unfair treatment by an employer, and you want to discuss this with an attorney, contact Bryan Schwartz Law today.