In recent years, a number of federal appellate courts, including the Fourth Circuit, have issued opinions finding that a single use of a racial slur can be enough to constitute a hostile and offensive working environment based on race. On August 21, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals bucked this trend, concluding that a single alleged use of the “n-word” by a supervisor was not enough to show racial harassment given the overall scenario encountered by the plaintiff.
In Smith v. Illinois Dept. of Transp., the plaintiff was disciplined and eventually terminated for poor work performance, including several serious safety violations. While employed, he made numerous internal complaints about harsh and unfair treatment by his supervisors, including a claim that a supervisor called him a “stupid ass n*****” a few weeks before he was terminated. He sued under Title VII, claiming race discrimination, racial harassment and retaliation.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. The court noted that the large majority of the plaintiff’s complaints about harassment involved supervisor conduct that did not appear related to race. The Seventh Circuit concluded that the alleged use of the n-word at the very end of his employment did not affect his overall experience at work. Although not emphasized in the opinion, the supervisor who allegedly made this comment was also African-American, which could have influenced the court’s view of the impact of this comment on the plaintiff.
The Fourth Circuit and other cases that found a single use of a racial slur to constitute racial harassment all involved alleged comments by white supervisors or co-workers. Although potentially distinguishable on this basis, the Seventh Circuit opinion gives employers an argument that racial harassment claims require more proof of severe and pervasive conduct that directly affects the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment.