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Fourth Circuit Says Title VII Does Not Require Termination of Co-Worker for Racist Joke

    Client Alerts
  • April 27, 2020

In recent years, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) has substantially lowered the legal bar for plaintiffs to demonstrate a hostile work environment based on race. When the alleged conduct involves use of racial slurs, the court has concluded that even one use of such language in the workplace can be sufficient to meet this standard under Title VII of federal civil rights law. On Tuesday however, the Fourth Circuit refused to extend this reasoning to require automatic termination of an employee who used such language.

In Bazemore v. Best Buy, the African-American plaintiff alleged that a co-worker told a racist and sexist joke in her presence that included the “N-word.” After the plaintiff complained to human resources, the co-worker was given a final written warning concerning her behavior, and no further incidents were reported. The plaintiff sued, claiming that Best Buy’s failure to terminate the offending co-worker resulted in a hostile and offensive work environment by forcing her to continue to work with that employee.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the complaint. The court noted that the warning provided to the employee was the final step before termination, and that it had apparently proven effective in preventing further incidents. The Fourth Circuit noted that Title VII does not prescribe employer’s reactions to violations of their EEO policies, and that a federal court doing so would result in micromanagement of employers’ human resources practices. As long as the measures taken are effective, the court will not second-guess them.

This decision may have been different if the joke was told by a supervisor. In that situation, the implied authority that a manager may hold over minority employees could result in a conclusion that a warning is not adequate to address the situation and to prevent future occurrences.