Hostile Work Environment Claim Advances Based on Racial Slurs
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of a plaintiff’s case and allowed a claim of a hostile work environment to continue through the courts. Brenda Smelter was the only African American employee at her office for Southern Care Home Services in Perry, Georgia where she claims that she was subject to nearly daily racial slurs before her firing from the company.
According to her lawsuit, Smelter was subject to racist comments nearly every day by her Caucasian employees. Comments included statements about black men being lazy and that black women had babies on welfare. Her fellow employees also allegedly made racist remarks about Smelter personally, stating that her hair made her look like a mixed monkey from Planet of the Apes. Smelter reported these comments on the last day of her employment, where she claims that a fellow employee called her by an incredibly derogatory racial slur. Smelter’s co-workers denied ever making any comments, and she was fired.
Smelter filed a lawsuit against her employer for discriminatory termination, retaliation, and the creation of a hostile work environment. The appellate court dismissed the discriminatory termination and retaliation claims on summary judgment but found that there was sufficient evidence to move forward with the claims of a hostile work environment both subjectively and objectively. The court found that the constant racial remarks were pervasive and constant throughout her employment. They also found that although the very offensive racial slur was aimed at her once, the word used was so egregious that even a single instance of it being uttered at her in the workplace may be enough to establish a hostile work environment claim.
Elements of a Hostile Work Environment
In order to claim that the workplace is a hostile work environment, an employee must show that the conditions at work rise above and beyond simply having an annoying or abrasive supervisor. Having a stressful job or disliking coworkers is not enough to create a hostile work environment. Under the law, a hostile work environment is created when a supervisor or employer is engaging in unwelcome conduct because of an actual or perceived protected characteristic. That action or behavior becomes a condition of continued employment for the harassed employee, and the conduct must be so pervasive or severe that a reasonable person would consider the workplace intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Protected characteristics include an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Offensive actions or behaviors can include offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, physical threats or assaults, intimidation, ridicule, mockery, humiliation, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. An experienced employment law attorney will be able to review the instances of harassment against you in the workplace and help determine whether they rise to the level of a hostile work environment claim.
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If you have questions about whether your working conditions rise to the level of a hostile work environment in Georgia or Washington D.C., our office may be able to help. Call The Vaughn Law Firm or contact us today to speak with an experienced employment law attorney about your potential hostile work environment claims.