Over the past decade, a growing number of federal appellate circuits have heard cases asking whether a single use of a racially offensive epithet is enough to clear the bar for a hostile environment racial harassment claim under Title VII. Last week, the reliably conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals joined the growing consensus that a single racial slur can constitute an offensive work environment due to race.
In Woods v. Cantrell, the African-American plaintiff alleged that his supervisor called him lazy, using the N-word to punctuate the insult. The district court dismissed the claim, concluding that a single allegation of use of a racial epithet could not as a matter of law result in a racially hostile work environment.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the claim for trial. In its decision, the court said that the question of a hostile work environment depends on the totality of the circumstances. In this case, a single use of a highly offensive racial epithet, directed at the plaintiff could support a claim of hostile work environment. The court noted a number of other federal circuits that have reached the same conclusion.
In many situations, employers are strictly liable under Title VII for the actions of their supervisors. This means that one use of a racially offensive term can result in liability even if the company immediately acts to address the situation once it is made aware of the incident. The developing consensus over liability for use of certain racially offensive slurs makes employee training, policies, and human resource monitoring more important than ever.