Fifth Circuit Appeals Court Holds that the Single Use of the N-Word Can Support a Federal Civil Rights Claim of a Hostile Work Environment

A black man’s supervisor at the French Market in New Orleans called him a “Lazy Monkey A__ N_____” in the presence of his co-workers. It only happened once, although there was abundant other evidence that he was harassed because of his race at his job, which is described as a hostile work environment. He was consistently denied a promotion. He was treated less favorably than other employees. No one took corrective action.

Anthony Woods Filed a Lawsuit with Claims of Violations of Many Different Federal Statutes and the U.S. Constitution, Including a Hostile Work Environment

Anthony Woods filed a lawsuit alleging race discrimination, disparate treatment, and a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He made allegations under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. He claimed religious discrimination and retaliation also under Title VII. He claimed violations of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. He also claimed conspiracy under Section 1985 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Woods Did Not Have A Lawyer to Plead His Case

This was a pro se Complaint, that is, Anthony Woods filed his Complaint without benefit of a lawyer, based only on his own information and personal experience. But it failed to completely convince the court, despite the abundance of evidence, which contributed to his lack of success in court.

On Appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court held that a single use of the n-word can be enough to support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII. Three facts come to mind:

  • This decision is a shift, and it aligns the Fifth Circuit with other Circuit Courts on the same issue.
  • On the other hand, it may turn out to be a single “dirty word” decision that turns out to be extremely limited in scope on future cases.
  • And finally, it is hard not to think of what might have been a much broader ruling if only he had the help of a lawyer from the beginning to frame the arguments in such a way as to help the court arrive at a better decision.

Filing a Complaint on Your Own Could Cost You Success on Your Case. Do Not Go It Alone!

When you experience discrimination, harassment, assault, unjust termination, retaliation or have endured a hostile work environment because of race, sex, pregnancy, disability, age, or national origin, reach out to our employment lawyers. Fill out and submit the form you reach by clicking on this link Contact Kilgore & Kilgore. You can also call us at (214) 949-9099. Bring your employment law questions to us.

A Hostile Work Environment, No Luck at the Trial Court Level, and then the Department of Justice Saves the Day

In addition to the vile epithet, the man described other circumstances in his Complaint. These included shift and assignment changes, understaffing, a wrongful termination, and an incident during which Woods believed his supervisor threatened him with a screwdriver. Despite all that, the trial court dismissed his Complaint, agreeing with the defendant employer that “a single utterance of a racial epithet, despicable as it is, cannot support a hostile work environment claim.” So, Woods appealed this decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Friend of the Court Amicus Brief Filed on his Behalf

Then, unbidden, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend of the court [amicus] brief on his behalf. Parenthetically, when Kristen Clarke was confirmed as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice in 2021, many expected her to take a more proactive role in civil rights cases than had been the situation during the previous administration. In this new case, the question of whether the District Court erred in holding that “a single utterance of a racial epithet, despicable as it is, cannot support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII” was found to be sufficient to attract the attention of the Justice Department, leading to a result in Woods’ favor.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and a Deep Dive into the Definition of a Hostile Work Environment

Title VII prohibits several forms of employment discrimination, including many named by Woods. The law makes it an “unlawful employment practice” for an employer to discriminate because of a worker’s race, color, religion, sex [including pregnancy or sexual orientation], or national origin with respect to terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. Previously, courts have interpreted this to forbid the creation of a hostile work environment based on an employee’s membership in a protected class, such as race or color. To prevail on a claim of hostile work environment, a plaintiff must prove four things:

  • membership in a protected group;
  • unwelcome harassment;
  • that was based on the protected characteristic; and
  • affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment, if it is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.

Courts consider the totality of the circumstances in deciding whether harassment alters the victim’s conditions of employment. These factors include how often it occurs, how severe it is, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it interferes with an employee’s work performance.

In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit Court focused on two things. The first was the severity of the n-word epithet and the second was totality of circumstances within which it took place. The holding brings the Fifth Circuit Court into better alignment with the First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and District of Columbia Circuits.

These rulings do not, however, seem to extend into situations where some other odious epithet was used. There is a risk that this case will be narrowly cabined into situations where only one word is off limits.

A Win is a Win, but Much May Have Been Unnecessarily Lost

In his original Complaint, Woods advanced claims under a variety of statutes as well as the U.S. Constitution. Some, like the Constitutional claims, were never properly before the District Court, but others, including allegations of disparate treatment and racial discrimination under Title VII, fell apart for procedural reasons – problems like the failure to exhaust remedies and pleading deficiencies. If Woods had had the assistance of an experienced employment lawyer from the beginning, these claims might have survived.

Our Employment Lawyers Have Answers to Your Employment Problems and Questions

Do not try to go it alone like the man in this true story. Our Texas employment lawyers have experience with employment claims under a variety of state and federal laws. Contact us if you believe that you have been the victim of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, unjust termination, or other workplace problems. Reach out to Kilgore & Kilgore for a free review of the facts of your case. Click here to get the conversation started contact Kilgore & Kilgore. Fill out the form and we will contact you for a frank discussion of the facts of your case.

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