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What Is Considered A Racially Hostile Work Environment?

by | Sep 19, 2023 | Employment Discrimination, Employment Law, Federal Law Update, Gender Discrimination, Race Discrimination, Sexual Harassment |

In our last blog post, our employment discrimination lawyers discussed the egregiously racially hostile work environment was presented in Banks v. Gen. Motors, LLC, No. 21-2640, 2023 WL 5761361 (2d Cir. Sept. 7, 2023); and how the District Court Judge still through the case out. (See The Best Employment Discrimination Cases Still Have Risk). Today, our attorneys look at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversal and reinstatement of the case and the issues discuss on appeal.

By way of short summary, the employee, Billie R. Banks, a brave African American woman, recounts the chilling race discrimination she endured at the hands of her employer, General Motors right within their Lockport, New York plant. The sordid details are nothing short of sickening: a manager shamelessly degraded her with the abhorrent slur “dumb n*gg*r,” a vile display witnessed by her horrified colleagues. The plant itself was marred by a deplorable parade of racist and sexist imagery, a daily affront to Banks’ dignity. The Confederate flag, a sinister emblem of hatred, was not only tolerated but flaunted on employees’ vehicles and clothing. To compound the pain, nooses – symbols of terror and racial violence – were displayed with malicious intent on not one, but three separate occasions, deliberately positioned near the workstations of Black employees. These calculated acts of aggression created an atmosphere of fear and hostility that no one should endure.

As if this weren’t enough, Banks further lays bare General Motors’ insidious attempts to muzzle her. When she mustered the courage to return to work after a leave of absence, a General Motors psychiatrist heartlessly denied her reentry, cruelly asserting that she lacked the “conflict resolution skills” needed to survive in this toxic environment – a not even thinly veiled reference to her valiant internal complaints and her unyielding stance before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) as the doctor specifically mentioned her EEOC charge in his notes and only allowed her to return once he thought the EEOC charges were lost.

But the torment did not end there. Upon her return, Banks was subjected to a ruthless demotion, stripped of supervisory responsibilities and relegated to a less desirable shift. This deliberate act of degradation, a direct consequence of her unflinching pursuit of justice, is a blatant testament to the depths of discrimination and retaliation she faced.

What is the time limit to bring a claim of race discrimination under Title VII?

Under Title VII, claimants alleging discrimination are required to initiate proceedings with the EEOC within either 180 days or, in states with their own administrative remedies for pursuing discrimination claims, 300 days “after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-(e)(1). This statutory provision functions as a statute of limitations, meaning that a failure to bring a charge within this time limit would forever bar the employee from asserting those claims moving forward. In National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, the United States Supreme Court clarified that the term “practice” pertains to “a discrete act or single ‘occurrence,’” and that a “discrete retaliatory or discriminatory act ‘occurred’ on the day that it ‘happened.’” 536 U.S. 101, 110-11, 122 S.Ct. 2061, 153 L.Ed.2d 106 (2002)). This means that the EEOC and courts will only look back 300 days from the date of filing and ignore everything that happened before that.

Best Race Discrimination Lawyer Blogs on Point:

What is the continuing violation doctrine and how does it apply to hostile work environment claims?

The continuing violation doctrine is an exception to the 300 day look back period and applies when the employer allows specific and related instances of discrimination to continue unremedied for so long as to amount to a discriminatory policy or practice. When a continuing violation exists, courts are required to consider all relevant conduct that falls within the employer’s discriminatory policy or practice, including actions that would have otherwise be time barred.

Moreover, hostile work environment claims, including for racial animosity, necessitate a different analysis than discrimination or retaliation claims because “[t]heir very nature involves repeated conduct.” National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 115, 122 S.Ct. 2061 (2002). While employment discrimination and retaliation claims typically deal with discrete and individual actions, the instances that creat to a hostile work environment “occur[ ] over a series of days or perhaps years and … a single act of harassment may not be actionable on its own.” Id. In Morgan, the Supreme Court plainly held that “[i]t does not matter … that some of the component acts of the hostile work environment fall outside the statutory time period” Id. at 117, 122 S.Ct. 2061. Thus, United States Supreme Court precedent provides that if  a singular “act contributing to the claim occurs within the filing period, the entire time period of the hostile environment may be considered by a court for the purposes of determining liability.” Id.

Based on this law, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit considered acts of discrimination that the District Court refused to.

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What is the standard to prove a hostile work environment claim?

To prove a hostile work environment claim, an employee needs to show that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory behavior based on a protected class, such as intimidation, ridicule, and/or insults. This behavior must be found to be “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment.” It is important to recognize that this standard utilizes an “or” and not an “and” when requiring “severe or pervasive.” The inappropriate behavior must be either very serious or happen frequently enough to make the work environment objectively hostile or abusive. Additionally, the victim must personally feel that the environment is indeed abusive.

In a hostile work environment claim, what matters most is the overall atmosphere at work, not just the intentions of one person in charge.  To that end, when assessing whether an environment is hostile and abusive, courts must look at the overall situation. This includes how often the discriminatory behavior occurs, how severe it is, whether it involves physical threats or extreme embarrassment, or if it’s just offensive language. Additionally, they consider if it unreasonably disrupts an employee’s ability to do their job. Isolated incidents of harassment do not “ordinarily” create a hostile work environment.

Best Racially Hostile Work Environment Attorney Blogs on Point:

Can a single act be severe enough to create a hostile work environment?

Yes. To create a hostile work environment, a singular act or incident must be “extraordinarily severe.” However, to reach this “extraordinarily severe” level the conduct need not include any actual or threatened physical assault or violence. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the District Court’s analysis that the offensive comments were simply “stray remarks.” Specifically, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held:

Second, multiple circuit courts have emphasized that “perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as ‘n****r.’ ” Rivera v. Rochester Genesee Reg’l Transp. Auth., 743 F.3d 11, 24 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Richardson v. New York State Dep’t of Corr. Serv., 180 F.3d 426, 439 (2d Cir. 1999)); see also Rodgers v. Western-Southern Life Ins. Co., 12 F.3d 668, 675 (7th Cir. 1993); Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 185 (4th Cir. 2001). The epithet has been “described as ‘a term that sums up … all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America, a pure anathema to African-Americans, and probably the most offensive word in English.’ ” Woods v. Cantrell, 29 F.4th 284, 285 (5th Cir. 2022) (quoting Ayissi-Etoh v. Fannie Mae, 712 F.3d 572, 580 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring)) (alterations adopted). Courts have also held that use of the word “monkey” or derivative terms is “similarly odious” and that their use within the workplace constitutes compelling evidence of a racially hostile work environment. See Spriggs, 242 F.3d at 185 (“To suggest that a human being’s physical appearance is essentially a caricature … goes far beyond the merely unflattering; it is degrading and humiliating in the extreme.”); Walker v. Thompson, 214 F.3d 615, 626 (5th Cir. 2000) (holding that a triable issue of fact existed on a hostile work environment claim where African American employees were subjected to, inter alia, “patently offensive remarks regarding the[ir] hair” and “conversations in which a co-worker and supervisor used the word ‘n****r’ ”).

Banks at *13.

Beyond the racial epithets that the Court of Appeals held could individually create a hostile workplace, it similarly pointed to the singular presentation of a noose in the work environment and held:

“[T]here can be little doubt that such a symbol is significantly more egregious than the utterance of a racist joke.” Williams, 154 F. Supp. 2d at 823. Instead, “the noose is among the most repugnant of all racist symbols, because it is itself an instrument of violence.” Id. at 824. “Like ‘a slave-masters whip,’ the image of a noose is ‘deeply a part of this country’s collective consciousness and history, [and] any further explanation of how one could infer a racial motive appears quite unnecessary.’ ” Tademy v. Union Pacific Corp., 614 F.3d 1132, 1142 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Johnson v. Potter, 177 F. Supp. 2d 961, 965 (D. Minn. 2001)) (alterations adopted); see also Vance v. S. Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 863 F.2d 1503, 1511 n.4 (11th Cir. 1989) (“It is hard to imagine an incident of this sort taking place in 1984. The grossness of hanging an object resembling a noose at the work station of a [B]lack female is self-evident.”), abrogated on other grounds by Harris, 510 U.S. at 20, 114 S.Ct. 367; Adams v. Austal, USA, LLC, 754 F.3d 1240, 1253 (11th Cir. 2014) (observing that the display of a noose within a workplace constitutes “a severe form of racial harassment”).

A reasonable jury could find that even a single placement of this object — imbued as it is with historical gravity as a symbol and tool of actual violence — directly at the workstation of a Black employee could amount to severe conduct sufficient to support an inference that the workplace is hostile to Black employees. See, e.g., Williams, 154 F. Supp. 2d at 822-26 (denying motion to dismiss because a single instance of a noose displayed in a White supervisor’s office was sufficiently severe to support a hostile work environment claim); Tademy, 614 F.3d at 1141-42 (reversing a grant of summary judgment because a jury could find that the placement of a noose near a clock, “where it was most likely to be seen and where it could have maximum effect,” could support a hostile work environment claim).

Banks at *12-13.

The Second Circuit  pointed to another example found in Howley v. Town of Stratford, 217 F.3d 141, 154 (2d Cir. 2000), in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that a jury could reasonably find a hostile work environment where a female firefighter, was subjected to a singular incident during a meeting by a male coworker who told her to “shut the f**k up, you f***ing whining c***t” in front of group of male firefighters, many of whom were her subordinates.

Best Race Harassment Lawyer Blogs on Point:

How do you prove that discriminatory conduct was pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment?

For behavior to be considered pervasive, it needs to go beyond isolated incidents. It must be ongoing and systematic.

In Banks, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court committed reversible error by holding that Banks failed this standard as a matter of law:

[A] reasonable jury could find that the incidents indeed evinced a culture of hostility towards Black and female employees. Banks was the recipient of sexually demeaning language, as were her female colleagues, and worked in a setting where images of pin-up women and sexually explicit silhouettes were common. From 2006 to 2016, Banks and other Black employees saw nooses, Confederate flags, and other racially offensive material around the plant, including a Black test dummy seated on a vehicle wearing minimal and tattered clothes.11 As the district court recognized, Black colleagues were subjected to “a steady barrage of racial insult and epithet.” Id. at *15. Specifically, several colleagues testified to being called “n****r” and “silverback” and having their work deemed “n****rized.” J. App’x at 540.

Banks at *12.

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What should I do if I am in a hostile work environment at work?

First, make sure that you are safe and not in any physical danger. Once you have done that, you should call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?). Call our top employment lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.

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