Wednesday, May 15, 2024

This should constitute a racially hostile work environment; the court says it didn't

15 different Black employees complain that their health-care employer maintains a racially hostile work environment. The allegations include several being exposed to the N-word at work, patients refusing treatment by Black employees and calling them "colored" and other slurs, and other race-based incidents.

Nevertheless, in EEOC v. Village at Hamilton Pointe, the 7th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the agency's racial harassment lawsuit. "In sum," the court wrote, "the evidence of record does not support, under established principles of law, a case for racial harassment that was so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment for any of these claimants."

I disagree.

There is ample caselaw supporting the legal principle that even one exposure by a Black employee to the N-word in the workplace is sufficiently severe as to alter the terms and conditions of employment and support a claim for a hostile work environment.

Further, if this case involved one employee complaining about one exposure to one less severe race-based experience at work, I could understand the court's holding. But this case involved 15 employees complaining about myriad race-based instances. Those 15 employees, taken in the aggregate, paint a picture of a workplace in which race-based comments and other mistreatment was condoned. That's the hallmark of a racially hostile work environment. This case creates a dangerous precedent that it's legally acceptable to mistreat employees because of their race (or other protected class) as long as you're sure not to mistreat any one employee too frequently.

Finally, please keep in mind that the law is a floor, not a ceiling. Employers, DO NOT read this case as a license to permit this type of offensive misconduct in your workplaces. This court gave the employer a pass; the next employer might not be so lucky. And regardless, it's just plain wrong.