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Sometimes Even a Supervisor’s Single Racial Slur Can Be Enough in a Discrimination or Harassment Case, Third Circuit Rules

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.

The men appealed, and the Third Circuit reversed the dismissal, thus reviving the case. The ruling clarified that the U.S. Supreme Court required only that workplace harassment be severe or pervasive, rather than severe and pervasive. Even if an act of harassment was neither pervasive nor regular, it could still be enough to be the basis of a valid lawsuit if the harassment was severe enough.

In this case, the court concluded that, depending on the overall context and surrounding facts, a single slur could potentially be severe enough to qualify as harassment. In this situation, the use of the N-word was made by a supervisor, was made in front of other non-African-American workers, and was in “the same breath… accompanied by threats of termination… This constitutes severe conduct that could create a hostile work environment.”

The Third Circuit’s ruling falls in line with other courts, like the D.C. Circuit, the Seventh Circuit, and the Fourth Circuit, which have held that relatively isolated uses of racial slurs (including, in one case, a single use of the N-word and, in another case, two uses of a different racial slur that was slightly less extreme but still extremely offensive to African-Americans) were enough to allow those cases to proceed.

You may have suffered extreme harassment or discrimination at work, but you may have also assumed that you cannot sue because the conduct was an isolated incident. Don’t just assume because, as this case showed, sometimes you don’t need an extensive pattern of wrongful conduct in order to prevail. The knowledgeable New Jersey race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help you assess your case. Our team has been assisting employees with discrimination actions in both state and federal courts for many years. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled and experienced attorneys to find out how we can help you get results.

More blog posts:

New Jersey State Police Employee Receives $500K For Employer’s Failure to Accommodate His Disability, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, April 13, 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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