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When Once is (or Isn’t) Enough: Racist/Sexist/Homophobic/Etc. Slurs and Hostile Work Environment Claims in New Jersey

The N-word… the B-word… the F-word… the C-word. They’re all incredibly offensive (as indicated by their censoring here.) Sometimes, one-time uses of certain slurs may be enough to satisfy the “severe or pervasive” standard federal law demands. With cases involving other words, however, you may need something more. To get a clear understanding of the proof you need for your hostile work environment case, talk to an experienced New Jersey sex discrimination lawyer to discuss the parameters of your situation.

Before he ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court, then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote of the “N-word” that it is “probably the most offensive word in English.” For this reason, courts have declared a single utterance of this word to be enough to constitute severe discrimination.

Other words, however, generally will carry less weight. For example, many courts have ruled that a single use of the misogynistic “B-word” isn’t sufficient to establish, by itself, a hostile work environment. As a recent sex discrimination case from Cape May reminds us, though, supervisors who direct that word toward a female employee often do it more than once, and repeated uses of it can be sufficient to establish the necessary degree of severity or pervasiveness to make out a hostile work environment claim.

In that recent case, L.D. and K.G. were female detectives at a local county prosecutor’s office. L.D., who was Black, alleged that a chief referred to her as a “[N-word] [B-word]”, though not to her face. Both women alleged that the B-word was an everyday occurrence at work.

According to the federal District Court here in New Jersey, that was enough. The detectives’ assertions that women were routinely described using the B-word (“everyday talk”) was sufficient to demonstrate a “pattern of sex-based derogatory language,” meaning that the detectives had established sufficiently pervasive behavior for a hostile work environment claim.

Other courts have reached similar conclusions. In 2020, a federal court in New York allowed a Walmart employee to maintain his case based on his supervisor’s directing an anti-Latino slur toward him. In that case, the court noted that, if the employee had presented only a single occurrence, the case would have failed. However, the employee pled a “prolonged” period in which the supervisor hurled that particular insult, which made his pleading sufficient.

Circumstances Where Just Once is Too Much

For Black workers here in New Jersey, the federal courts have established precedent acknowledging that, when it comes to the N-word, one time may be too much. In 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions guide federal cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware,) ruled that a single racist comment was enough to give two Black workers a viable hostile work environment claim.

In that case, the two Black general laborers were working on a fence removal project when their supervisor used a variation of the phrase “jury rig” that included the N-word.

That was sufficient, according to the Third Circuit court. In ruling for the workers, the court followed in the footsteps of a 1993 case from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings guide federal cases in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.) The court acknowledged that any successful hostile work environment claim must sufficiently establish that the adverse action the worker endured was substantial enough that it altered “the terms and conditions” of employment. Subsequently, it opined 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 [the N-word] by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates.”

A 2008 case from New Jersey’s Appellate Division court demonstrates that, while the N-word may be considered by some (like Justice Kasvanuagh) to be the worst of the worst, it is not necessarily in a class by itself when it comes to single-utterance cases and hostile work environments. In that 2008 decision, the Appellate Division court ruled that a gay man at an investment management firm could pursue his sexual orientation discrimination case based on his supervisor’s alleged one-time utterance of an anti-gay slur [F-word] under her breath as the supervisor passed him in the hallway at work.

Although they shouldn’t be, vulgar and offensive slurs based on race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., are a part of life for many workers. Sometimes, they may be examples of bad behavior. Other times, though, they are instances of discrimination that violate the law. When what you encounter falls into the latter category, the experienced New Jersey sex discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. We can be the advocate you need to develop the strongest case possible. To find out more, contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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