How many times do you have to be racially insulted to claim that you are
in a hostile work environment? More than once, it would appear.
James Nichols was hired by Michigan City in 2011 as a temporary, substitute
janitor at two local elementary schools. In just over two weeks on the
job, Nichols alleged that various instances occurred with racial undertones,
including one instance in which co-worker Bette Johnston was walking with
her assistant, and as they walked by, she said to him, "You're
a black n-----."
After the two were involved in a fight which got physical, the school principal
held a meeting with Nichols' supervisors at the Michigan City Plant
Planning Department — which oversaw maintenance at all Michigan
City schools — to discuss his behavior.
Eventually, after accusations that Nichols tried to take photos of Johnston
to "catch her in the act of mistreating him," Nichols was confronted
by his supervisors who noted that he was "agitated, spoke very quickly
and was sweating profusely."
Nichols was removed by his supervisors from his position as a result of
the meeting and his erratic behavior on the day he was let go, according
to court documents.He sued, claiming a racially hostile work environment
existed. His case was thrown out by a lower court.
On appeal, he lost again. According to the
court "Nichols claims that Johnston's alleged 'black n----r'
comment constitutes severe harassment. We have stated that while there
is no 'magic number of slurs' that indicates a hostile work environment,
an 'unambiguously racial epithet falls on the 'more severe'
end of the spectrum. However, while referring to colleagues with such
disrespectful language is deplorable and has no place in the workforce,
one utterance of the n-word has not generally been held to be severe enough
to rise to the level of establishing liability".
The court said that five other incidents of discrimination and harassment
reported in Nichols' lawsuit could not be proven to be directed at
him and did not interfere with his job performance. Additionally, it noted
that Nichols' supervisors had stated in sworn affidavits that regardless
of what happened between Johnston and Nichols, the janitor's position
was going to be filled with a permanent employee the following week.
This case serves as another example that a court, in order to find a racially
hostile work environment, must see evidence that the environment was both
subjectively and objectively hostile (i.e. that not only racially hostile
act took place, but also that the plaintiff perceive them as directed
specifically at him ), and that the conduct be severe and pervasive. People
make racially insensitive remarks all the time, sometimes in a joking
manner. It is only when one perceives them as being serious and pervasive
that a claim for a racially hostile work environment might succeed.
Courts do differ on how a law is interpreted, and expert help is needed
in order to determine whether you have a valid claim for racial discrimination
in the workplace. If you have been the victim of racial harassment in
the workplace, call the attorneys at Schwartz & Perry LLP for advice.