Courts are not tolerating any hint of a hostile work environment anymore. The trend moving across jurisdictions is to take a close look at even single incidences of harassment or discriminatory behavior to see if that, in and of itself, would create a hostile work environment for a person. Employers should be on high alert and should not only be prepared to swiftly intervene should any such incidences occur in the workplace, but also do what they can to prevent such situations from arising at all. After all, in many cases, employers can be held strictly liable for the actions of supervisors in their company under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What this means is that an employer can be held liable for a supervisor’s behavior even if the company takes immediate action in addressing the situation as soon as they are made aware of its occurrences.
Court Finds Single Use of Racial Slur Can Create Hostile Work Environment
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recently found that a single use of a racial slur can result in a valid hostile work environment claim. In this case, an employee filed suit against their employer. In the suit, the employee alleged that, among other things, their supervisor called them the “N-word” in front of coworkers. As a result of that, the employee asserted, a hostile work environment was created.
The trial court dismissed the employee’s claim stating that the single comment was insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII. The trial court’s conclusion was reversed on appeal by the 5th Circuit. The reversal came despite the court’s record of previous ruling that a single incidence involving the use of a racial slur would not, in and of itself, support a hostile work environment claim. The 5th Circuit acknowledged this previous ruling and proceeded to explain that whether or not a single incident involving use of a racial slur supported a hostile work environment claim depends on the totality of the circumstances. Because, in the current case, the claimant was called a particularly egregious racial slur and that this occurred in front of coworkers, then this could be enough to support a hostile work environment claim.
In its ruling, the 5th Circuit joins other federal appellate courts in trending towards the ability for a claimant to support the assertion of a hostile work environment claim due to a single use of a racial slur. It all depends on context. Regardless, employers need to be mindful of the liability exposure that can come with these recent rulings. Employees also need to be aware of such rulings as they can have profound impacts on their ability to seek compensation for harm incurred as a result of suffering from a hostile work environment.