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.