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Racial Slurs In One Conversation Do Not Create Actionable Hostile Work Environment

Published by on November 1, 2010

The Western District of Virginia granted the defendant employer’s motion for summary judgment on a pro se race discrimination claim brought by a former employee.  The plaintiff alleged that his former supervisor and Vice President of the company called him a derogatory term on three separate occasions.  A copy of the opinion is here.  More […]

The Western District of Virginia granted the defendant employer’s motion for summary judgment on a pro se race discrimination claim brought by a former employee.  The plaintiff alleged that his former supervisor and Vice President of the company called him a derogatory term on three separate occasions.  A copy of the opinion is here.  More after the break.

The court began its analysis by setting forth the standard for a hostile work environment claim:  a plaintiff must show that the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to him, would allow a reasonable factfinder to find that the conduct was (1) unwelcome; (2) based on his race; (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of his employment and create an abusive atmosphere; and (4) imputable to the employer.  The court also noted that, construing it liberally, the complaint made out a cognizable retaliation claim based on Hampton’s allegations that he was fired one month after the filing of his charge of discrimination.  The court found that it lacked jurisdiction over the retaliation claim, however, because the charge was filed before Hampton’s termination and only alleged a hostile work environment.

With respect to the hostile work environment claim, the court focused its analysis on whether the alleged comments were sufficiently severe to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere.  The court found that Hampton had failed to establish this element of his claim because the alleged comments were made during the course of one conversation and thus were not sufficient to rise to the level of a hostile work environment.  The court cited a Second Circuit case for the test for when a racial comment constitutes a hostile work environment: 

For racist comments, slurs, and jokes to constitute a hostile work environment, there must be more than a few isolated incidents of racial enmity, meaning that instead of sporadic racial slurs, there must be a steady barrage of opprobrious racial comments.  Thus, whether racial slurs constitute a hostile work environment typically depends upon the quantity, frequency, and severity of those slurs, considered cumulatively in order to obtain a realistic view of the work environment.

The court stated that although there is no “bright line rule on the number of times a supervisor or employer can use a racial slur while addressing an employee without creating a hostile work environment for Title VII purposes,” the use of a racial slur on three occasions in the course of one conversation is not sufficient to create an abusive atmosphere.

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