Discrimination and harassment based upon race can take different forms and patterns in the workplace. In some situations, it may be more subtle and frequent, with veiled or oblique comments or actions occurring often. Sometimes, the frequency is much less, but the discrimination or harassment is far from subtle or oblique. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed the latter scenario, entering an important ruling on behalf of future New Jersey race discrimination and harassment victims in the workplace. The ruling clarifies that an employee may have a case if he proves that the improper conduct was pervasive or was severe, and, depending on other circumstances, even a single use of the most extremely offensive racial slur could be enough to meet the standard for “severe.”
Atron and John were two African-American men hired as general laborers to work on an energy company’s pipeline project. One day, while the men were working on a fence removal task, a supervisor allegedly told them that, if they completed the work in a particularly shoddy manner, they would be fired. The supervisor didn’t use the word “shoddy,” though, instead using a descriptor that incorporated the N-word. The alleged statement was made in front of other non-African-American workers.
The men reported this slur to a superior. Shortly thereafter, they were fired. After their terminations, the men sued for harassment, racial discrimination, and retaliation. The federal District Court assigned to the case threw it out, concluding that the law required proof that the alleged misconduct was “pervasive and regular,” and these men’s case, which rested primarily upon the one-time use of the N-word, could not possibly meet this legal hurdle.