A recent decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals addresses an important issue in employment discrimination law—how offensive and hostile must a work environment be for it to qualify as discriminatory?
The answer given by the trial court—that the workplace must be “hellish”—was squarely rejected by the appellate court. Instead, they reminded district court judges that an environment can be discriminatory without being torture.
The plaintiff in Gates v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago was a black man claiming to have suffered racial harassment. He worked as an engineer in a Chicago school and alleged that his supervisor made several discriminatory comments to him.
In sum, Gates alleged that his supervisor had:
Gates filed a race discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and ultimately filed a lawsuit under Title VII alleging a hostile work environment. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted. Stating the one or two racial slurs did not make a workplace offensive, the district court dismissed the case because the conduct did not rise to the level of being “hellish” for the employee.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the award of summary judgment, which means the case can go to trial on its merits. This does not mean Gates will win, but it does mean he gets to have his day in court.
The Seventh Circuit first noted that the district court applied the wrong standard: A workplace does not need to be “hellish” for it to be actionable. Citing the Supreme Court, the Seventh Circuit noted that Title VII applies well before a worker suffers a nervous breakdown. The key is whether the workplace is so hostile that it would impede a worker’s performance or willingness to stay on the job.
The Seventh Circuit also stated that the district court relied on previous cases where coworkers had made offensive comments. By contrast, this cast involved offensive statements made by a supervisor, which the Court considers much more serious. When a supervisor uses slurs or racially-charged language, then a workplace can be altered much more quickly.
It also mattered to the Seventh Circuit that the supervisor made these statements directly to the employee. In other situations, where a supervisor makes statements not directed at anybody in particular, the workplace might be less hostile.
If you have suffered racial abuse at work, you might have a claim for race discrimination. The keys to your case will be fully documenting the offensive conduct and getting a charge filed with the EEOC within the deadline.
Contact us today. The attorneys at Marshall Forman & Schlein LLC, LLC, have worked in this field of law for decades. We have helped many employees push back against racial discrimination and have obtained favorable settlements and jury verdicts. To schedule your consultation, please call us today.
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