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Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case Involving Use of the N-Word in the Workplace

The Supreme Court appears to be in the mood to make headlines this week. While they made the shocking announcement to consider a case that may ultimately allow it to overturn Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose, the Supreme Court also decided to fully steer clear of issues involving racism and discrimination in the workplace, refusing to hear the case of a Black man who says he was repeatedly harassed while on the job.

Pete Williams of NBC News reported that “the Supreme Court on Monday [May 17] turned down an appeal from a former operating room aide at a Texas hospital who said his exposure to the N-word, one of the most offensive terms in the English language, created a hostile work environment.”

According to Williams, who covers legal matters for the network, “the issue has divided the nation’s federal courts. Some have said that the use of the slur is so serious that even an isolated incident can establish a claim of discrimination. Others have said a single use of the word is a ‘mere utterance,’ and doesn’t meet the test.”

In this case, Robert Collier, a medical worker at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas from 2009 to 2016, claimed he was fired after complaining about a possible hostile work environment. In his discrimination lawsuit, Collier said that he and other Black employees at the hospital were treated worse than white employees and were regularly forced to use an elevator that had the N-word scratched into its wall in order to reach the cafeteria. Collier also claimed hospital management did nothing after he complained about the profane graffiti. In their defense in the case, the hospital said it had “investigated several complaints from Collier, but none involved racially offensive comments or graffiti.”

Williams reported that “a federal district judge tossed out his case, concluding that no reasonable jury would find the hospital’s conduct sufficiently hostile because it was not directed at him and because the effect on his work, by his own admission, was marginal.” Following an appeal, Williams said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision.

According to Williams, “an employer violates federal civil rights law when a work environment is so pervaded by discrimination that conditions of employment are altered.” However, in their argument to the Supreme Court, the hospital’s lawyers said that law ‘is emphatically not a general civility code.’”

Collier’s lawyer, Brian Wolfman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, countered that argument, saying that a decision in the case was not just vital but necessary for American workers as a whole. Wolfman said if nothing changes, “Black employees in a significant swath of the country will, at a minimum, be forced to endure [the word’s] prolonged and repeated use.”

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund has also urged the Supreme Court to take up the case, saying that even a single use of the word in the workplace “disregards the real-world impact of racial harassment on Black employees and, as a result, diminishes workplace protections against harassment and discrimination.”

Following tradition, the Supreme Court did not issue a statement explaining why they had decided to reject hearing the case and refused to weigh in with any further rulings.

 

Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.

 

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