The U.S. Supreme Court Refused to Hear a Case About the ‘N-Word’ and Hostile Work Environments… Here’s What That Means for You in New York

It is, perhaps, the most incendiary word in the English language today. But is a single utterance of the N-word enough to make for a successful hostile work environment claim under federal law? With the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear a Texas man’s case, the answer to that will remain varied based upon where you bring your case. Fortunately for Black workers here in New York, there are a multitude of legal avenues available if you’ve been on the receiving end of that word on the job. To learn more about your options, make sure you’re getting the knowledgeable advice you need from an experienced New York workplace discrimination lawyer.

The case the Supreme Court declined to take involved a Black man who worked at a Dallas hospital and who ostensibly was fired for insubordination. According to the worker, his was a hostile work environment and his employer actually fired him in retaliation for his complaining about that environment.

Allegedly, R.C.’s workplace was one where the “N-word” was scratched into an elevator and where the storage room he often used had two swastikas drawn on the wall. The trial court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said that the N-word graffiti and the swastikas were not severe or pervasive enough to make for a hostile work environment.

Because the Supreme Court decided not to hear the dispute, the rulings in each individual circuit remain the controlling federal law on this issue. That can be helpful news for Black workers in New York. Federal hostile work environment cases in New York are controlled by the decisions of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and that court has reached the opposite conclusion of the Fifth Circuit when it comes to usage of the N-word.

In 2017, the Second Circuit looked at a case involving a Black worker in Manhattan. According to the man’s complaint, his supervisor compared him to a gorilla and called him a “f****** n*****.” That court, in ruling for the worker, held that even an isolated use of a racial slur could make for a hostile work environment if the slur was severe enough. Three years before that, the same court stated “perhaps no single act can more quickly … create an abusive working environment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as ‘[n*****]’ by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates.”

More options may be available under New York State and New York City Human Rights Law

If you are pursuing a hostile work environment claim in New York City based upon being called the N-word, be aware that you do not have to prove that the harm you suffered was severe or pervasive. Under both the New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights Law, you simply have to have proof of the harassment. Once you’ve proven that, the burden then shifts to your employer to prove that the harassment you endured was nothing more than “petty slights or trivial inconveniences.” In that scenario, your employer would have to prove that the N-word usage in your workplace was just some insignificant insult or minimal annoyance, which is a hurdle that might be difficult to clear.

People of color should be entitled to employment free of the sort of harassment that makes their workplaces hostile ones. That includes Black workers being free from having to endure the N-word on the job. If you’ve experienced that kind of workplace, contact the experienced race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to find out what legal options you have. Our attorneys have many years of taking – and winning – cases on behalf of workers of color just like you. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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