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Court Clarifies What Proof Is Required to Prove Race Discrimination


Victims of employment discrimination often suffer harassment over a period of years and, as a result, may be unable to recall the specific circumstances of each act against them. Adding on the fact that discrimination is rarely done openly, and there is never a "smoking gun," a person alleging discrimination may feel that fighting discrimination is too uphill a battle to try.

In Rivera v. Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, 702 F.3d 685 (2d Cir. Dec. 2012), the Second Circuit, the federal appellate court for New York, Vermont and Connecticut, clarified what a plaintiff must be required to prove in a hostile environment case.

In Rivera, the plaintiffs alleged that his supervisor and co-workers repeatedly made discriminatory comments to him, including calling him "spic" and saying, "What's that smell . . . there is Taco Bell." The plaintiffs, however, were unable to recall specifics regarding each instance and also pointed to other acts of bullying that were not overtly racial. The lower court had granted the company's motion for summary judgment, which dismissed the case, saying that harassment the plaintiffs experienced arose from a "personal conflict" and that the "offensive language" over a period of years was not enough to permit the claim to go to a jury.

The appellate court, however, reversed the lower court and permitted the plaintiffs' claim to proceed to a jury. The court found that witnesses who stated that the supervisor used racial slurs outside of the plaintiffs' presence demonstrated that race discrimination could have motivated the supervisor, and cautioned that "a hostile work environment claim need not be supported by direct evidence of explicit racial harassment." The court also found that the although one of the plaintiffs could not provide all details about his claim, "he provided enough details," so that his claim should not have been dismissed. The court also noted that the plaintiffs did not contradict their prior answers, so that it was not proper for the lower court to disregard their testimony.

We are pleased to see the court acknowledge, as it has before, that employment discrimination victims who fight back should not have their claims dismissed merely based on the court's belief that the plaintiff did not provide "enough" proof.

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