Nooses and Other Images of Racial Violence in New York Race Discrimination Cases

It is both sad and strange that people displaying nooses in workplaces still happens. Fortunately for workers in New York City, there are laws at multiple levels that protect you from having to put up with these kinds of hostile conditions on the job. Whether your situation involves a noose, the N-word, or some other form of misconduct, a knowledgeable New York City race discrimination lawyer can help you assess and advance your case.

One of the more recent cases addressing this problem comes from a federal court in Tennessee. T.G., a Black man, worked for the public electric utility in Nashville. Over the years, T.G. allegedly endured nooses in the workplace, racist drawings, comments about bringing back slavery, the need for Black workers to “stay in their place,” and coworkers asking him to teach them to “talk Black.”

The federal court in Nashville refused to throw out T.G.’s hostile work environment claim on summary judgment, deciding that he had presented sufficient evidence to proceed. In reaching that conclusion, the judge pointed out that “the nooses found” on the employer’s property were the “most disturbing pieces of evidence.” The court stated that it “is clear beyond any reasonable debate that a noose is severely physically and mentally threatening for anyone, especially for” Black people.

While this misconduct occurred in Tennessee, New York is not immune to these ugly symbols in our workplaces. In New York, workers have various laws (with various standards) available to protect them. A federal claim of race discrimination normally arises under Title VII (although it may potentially arise under laws like 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, as well.) Federal law requires a worker who asserted the existence of a hostile work environment to prove that the hostility was “severe” or “pervasive.”

Federal courts here in New York have ruled that even just a single noose incident may meet the federal standard of “severity,” which means you would not have to have proof of pervasive discrimination. In one race discrimination lawsuit, a Black New York City Housing Authority worker walked into his supervisor’s office only to find a noose on display there. Two days later, with the noose still on display, the worker asked the supervisor about it. The supervisor “immediately removed the noose and stated: ‘you know I’m not like that,’ adding, ‘It was a joke,’ and ‘I apologize if it offended you.'”

A Noose = A Physical Threat = ‘Almost Always… a Hostile Work Enviornment’

The court concluded that the worker had a viable hostile work environment case. The court declared that “when conduct in the workplace is physically threatening to an individual because of his membership in a protected class, that conduct will almost always create a hostile work environment.” Displaying a noose (“itself an instrument of violence”) was conduct that fell into that category of intimidating and physically threatening conduct.

New York City does things differently. The city’s law says that a worker can pursue a case regardless of the discrimination’s degree of frequency or severity. Once the worker clears his hurdle, the burden shifts to the defendant to demonstrate that the alleged discrimination was nothing more than “petty slights or trivial inconveniences.”

Until 2019, the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), like the federal law, required that a worker prove that the discrimination he suffered was either severe or pervasive. Effective Feb. 8, 2020, that changed. Following a 2019 amendment to the NYSHRL, state law now mirrors the standards and procedures New York City has in place.

For the next few months, some NYSHRL race discrimination plaintiffs may have cases that do not proceed under the new standard. The statute of limitations for advancing a discrimination action under the NYSHRL is three years. Currently, that means that actionable misconduct could include things as old as events occurring in the latter half of 2019. For people harmed by misconduct that occurred between June 2019 and Feb. 7, 2020, your claim may have “accrued” before the change in the law, and the court would assess your case under the old standard.

Nevertheless, a noose very possibly would give you a viable case. Many courts in New York have ruled that even a single noose in the workplace may, given its inherent connotation of racially-targeted violence, be enough to satisfy the severe requirement in Title VII or pre-amendment NYSHRL.

Black workers in New York should reasonably expect workplaces free from vile and violent images and comments like nooses and the N-word. Too often, that doesn’t happen. Whether your situation involves a noose or something more subtle, you may be entitled to sue and win in a case of race discrimination. Get in touch with the skilled New York race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to protect your rights and interests. Contact us online or at (866) 490-5193 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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