Black Staffer Fired After Refusing to Work with Man Who Used N-Word
Woman says she was terminated for threatening to contact a lawyer
Can an African American woman be lawfully terminated for refusing to work
alongside a coworker who once referred to her by a racial epithet?
That’s the question currently before a court in New Jersey.
Let’s dig in to the details and then discuss what it means to other workers.
No longer tolerable
Tyshanna Nuness, a black woman, was a line picker for Simon & Schuster.
She often had to work in close proximity to Christopher Hankins, a white
male who also worked as a line picker.
According Nuness, Hankins had a reputation for speaking inappropriately
to other employees. His conduct was so severe that the management team
once had a meeting to discuss his behavior, Nuness alleges, but no disciplinary
action was taken.
Nuness says that one day while working with Hankins, he referred to her
by a racial epithet. She reported the incident to her supervisor, who
then notified human resources. Hankins was suspended for one week.
When Hankins returned to work, he was scheduled to work the same shift
as Nuness. She told her supervisor that she felt uncomfortable and unsafe
working near Hankins. She requested that Hankins be reassigned or, alternatively,
that she be reassigned.
Her request was denied, even though Nuness alleges that there were multiple
open positions available.
Nuness told the director of human resources that she did not feel comfortable
coming to work because she could “no longer tolerate the racially
charged environment.” She said that she would be contacting an attorney.
The human resources director allegedly replied that Nuness would be terminated
if she didn’t arrive for her scheduled shifts.
Nuness refused to come to work. One week later she was fired.
She got a lawyer and sued the company for racial harassment and retaliation.
The company attempted to have the case thrown out. It argued that the situation
was not severe enough to rise to the level of unlawful racial harassment.
The court dismissed the racial discrimination complaint. It ruled that
while Hankins’s conduct was offensive, the company couldn’t
be held liable for one single incident of a racial epithet being used
by a non-manager, who was then disciplined after the incident.
However, the court refused to drop the retaliation claim. It stated that
the timing of Nuness’s complaint in relation to when she lost her
job may be enough to show that she was retaliatated against.
The case will now be heard by a jury.
(For more information, see Nuness v. Simon & Shuster.)
What It Means to You
Many employees resist making complaints about unlawful activity over concerns
that they’ll lose their jobs, or be retaliated against in some other
way. However, it’s important to know that federal law offers employees
protection from adverse actions after they’ve made complaints.
Adverse actions may comprise a number of things, including termination,
demotion, being scheduled to work undesirable shifts, loss of advancement
opportunities, or other actions that may change the terms and conditions
of a person’s employment.
If you believe that your rights have been compromised, it’s a good
idea to speak to an attorney.
Call or email us today to discuss your unique situation.