In a recent string of decisions, federal courts have concluded that use of racial epithets even on one occasion is sufficient to constitute a hostile work environment under Title VII. Thus, use of the N-word and other derogatory terms can result in claims for racial harassment. A new unreported decision from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concludes that more ambiguous terms can also create a hostile environment when viewed in context with the employee’s overall treatment.
In Cooler v. Layne Christensen Co., the plaintiff alleged that he was subjected to a series of racially hostile actions and statements from his supervisor and other white co-workers. In addition to less favorable work assignments, and exclusion from break rooms and other company facilities, the plaintiff alleged that his supervisor referred to him using the term “boy” and to African-Americans as “you people.” The district court dismissed the complaints, concluding that these terms are ambiguous enough to avoid their use being considered a hostile work environment.
The Eleventh Circuit reversed this portion of the dismissal, remanding the matter for trial. In its decision, the court noted that the use of these terms has to be considered in the context of the plaintiff’s other claims. The supervisor who allegedly made these comments was known within the company as the “grand wizard.” He displayed Confederate flag stickers and told the plaintiff that he had previously been counseled for using the N-word in the workplace.
With these factors in mind, the Eleventh Circuit said that a jury could reasonably infer that the use of the other terms was made with racial hostility. Therefore, this was enough to meet the plaintiff’s burden with regard to a hostile work environment. Employers should understand that workplace use of any terms that appear to have a racial, gender, or other type of animus against people protected by law cannot be tolerated. This case demonstrates that even if these terms have a somewhat ambiguous use as an epithet, courts will look to the context in which they are made in order to determine whether they demonstrate hostility toward the protected individual.