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Racial Slurs, Racist Symbols, and What You Need to Succeed in a New Jersey Hostile Work Environment Case

When a co-worker, a supervisor, or even someone who is on-site but doesn’t work for your employer uses racial slurs or epithets, that potentially creates a hostile work environment. As an African-American employee, you do not need to have suffered daily slurs and abuse for months or years in order to have a hostile work environment case. Sometimes, even a single utterance may be severe enough to prove the existence of a hostile work environment if that utterance was the N-word. The important thing is to retain an experienced New Jersey discrimination attorney to represent you and help you in protecting your right to be free from an abusive or hostile work environment.

Some people may have heard the words “severe” and “pervasive” when it comes to hostile work environment law and may mistakenly believe that, in order to win a discrimination case, an employee has to show that the discriminatory acts were both bad (severe) and ongoing for a period of time (pervasive). That’s incorrect. The law says that misconduct that is either severe or pervasive can be enough to demonstrate a hostile work environment and create a viable racial discrimination case.

So what exactly is needed to show misconduct that was severe or pervasive? If your only proof is a single racial slur, can you win a discrimination case? Potentially, yes! Last summer, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings cover New Jersey in addition to Delaware and Pennsylvania) ruled in favor of a pair of workers who suffered discrimination at work. A supervisor instructed two African-Americans to fix a fence and told them that if they jerry-rigged the job, they’d be fired. The supervisor, however, didn’t use the word “jerry-rigged,” but instead a similar hyphenated word that included the N-word epithet.

That was the sole crux of the men’s case, and the Third Circuit said that even one isolated use of the N-word could be enough to give the employees a case. Although not pervasive, just one utterance of the N-word has the ability to qualify as sufficiently severe to amount to a hostile work environment. The Third Circuit and another federal appeals court ruled that one N-word was sufficiently severe because that word is so “deeply offensive.” Additionally, as a New York case won by Phillips & Associates demonstrated, you can have a viable claim for a hostile work environment based upon your supervisor’s use of the N-word even if both you and your supervisor are black.

The courts have not given quite as much weight to other deeply offensive symbols of racial hatred. One federal court of appeals ruled that a noose placed in an African-American employee’s locker was not enough, by itself, to create a hostile work environment. In many cases, though, the use of a noose is often accompanied by other forms of race-related abuse. In 2012, the EEOC secured a consent decree with a freight company based in Illinois. In that case, African-American employees were subjected to multiple nooses, as well as racist graffiti, racist cartoons, and racist slurs (like “a** monkey”). That was enough for the employer to submit to the consent decree and pay $11 million.

The law is clear that, to prove a hostile work environment, you can demonstrate that the conduct was severe or that it was pervasive. Sometimes, even single incidents or words may be enough to meet the severity criterion. If you’ve been on the receiving end of the N-word at work or encountered other slurs, epithets, or symbols of racism, reach out to the knowledgeable New Jersey race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We have been working hard to provide diligent representation for discriminated employees in New Jersey. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation to find out how we can help you.

More blog posts:

Sometimes Even a Supervisor’s Single Racial Slur Can Be Enough in a Discrimination or Harassment Case, Third Circuit Rules, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, July 21, 2017

New Jersey Supreme Court Upholds $1.4M Emotional Damage Award in Race Discrimination Case, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 16, 2017

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