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Supreme Court Denies Request to Hear Case to Determine Whether Workplace Use of the N-Word Creates a Hostile Work Environment

The Supreme Court said Monday it will not hear a case that would have required justices to determine whether a single usage of the N-word in the workplace constitutes a hostile work environment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Robert Collier, a former employee of the Dallas County Hospital District, filed a petition with the Supreme Court earlier this year asking it to review a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

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Collier worked for the hospital system between 2009 and 2016 and while there regularly complained to human resources about “racially hostile graffiti” that had been etched into the wall of an elevator that was commonly used by workers.

Collier claimed that despite his complaints the graffiti, which included the N-word, wasn’t removed from the wall for six months.

Additionally, Collier alleged that swastikas painted onto the wall in s storage room remained there for two years and that Collier and his fellow Black colleagues were called “boy” by white employees despite objections.

Collier claimed in the suit filed in April 2020 that he was officially fired for insubordination but he believes the real reason for his firing was because he had spoken up about racial discrimination and the hostile work environment. The appellate court reached a decision in September and ruled that the use of the N-word was not severe enough to constitute a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The court’s decision affirmed a prior ruling by a district court.

The district court found that the “rationale given for Collier’s termination was not pretextual and that his working environment was not sufficiently abusive to constitute a hostile work environment,” the appellate court said. “We affirm,” the appellate judges added.

According to the appellate court, the conduct was “not physically threatening,” was “not directed” at Collier other than the “boy” comments and did “not unreasonably interfere” with his work performance.

Collier was attempting to appeal the decision.

In order to prove a hostile work environment under Title VII, an employee must demonstrate that they were the target of “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”

The court ruled in the 1993 case Harris v. Forklift Sys, that “mere utterance of an epithet which engenders offensive feelings in an employee” is not sufficient to implicate Title VII.

Although the Supreme Court has never clarified whether the N-word counts as a mere utterance, or established if its use constitutes a hostile work environment, federal appellate courts have reached different decisions on the matter. Two of the 13 federal district courts have ruled that just one use of N-word does meet the requirements for a hostile work environment. However, in five other appeals courts it has been found that the use of the slur does not constitute a hostile work environment.

In February, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) filed an amicus brief in support of certiorari — the request to the Supreme Court to hear the case — in support of Collier.

“Subjecting a Black employee to the N-word is a quintessential form of racial harassment,” said LDF assistant counsel Jennifer Holmes. “If unaddressed racial slurs and swastikas are not enough to prove a racially hostile environment, what is? The Fifth Circuit’s ruling leaves Black workers exposed to harassment and discrimination in the workplace without recourse under Title VII, ultimately limiting their economic opportunities. We urge the Supreme Court to grant review and reverse the lower court’s ruling.”

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