Over the past decade, federal courts have gradually reduced the evidentiary burden necessary for a plaintiff to reach a jury trial on claims involving sexual or racial harassment. The relevant legal standard calls for the offending conduct to rise to the level of a hostile work environment, characterized by severe or pervasive behavior. A new decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals focuses on the severity of the alleged conduct, concluding that a supervisor’s alleged use of the “N-word” on several occasions was sufficient to send a racial harassment claim to jury trial.
In Gates v. Board of Education of Chicago, the plaintiff was a school building engineer who alleged that over the course of two years, his supervisor used the “N-word” in reference to him and others on three separate occasions. One alleged incident involved a dispute over a denied promotion. The district court dismissed the claim on summary judgment, concluding that the occasional use of this term over an extended period of time failed to meet the requirement for a hostile work environment. The district court said that in order to meet this legal standard, the plaintiff had to demonstrate that he was subjected to a “hellish” work environment.
The Seventh Circuit had little trouble reversing this decision, rejecting the district court’s reading of Title VII. The employee does not have to suffer a nervous breakdown before gaining protection under the law. Use of the “N-word,” even on one or only a few occasions over the course of employment, can trigger this liability, especially where the alleged harasser is the employee’s supervisor. This decision follows those of a number of other courts in recent years, which have concluded certain racial epithets are so offensive that their use in the workplace virtually always creates the basis for a viable harassment claim.