A Supervisor, a Prank Phone Call, and Racial Slurs: The Ingredients of a Viable Hostile Work Environment Case for 5 New Jersey Workers

The law of discrimination and harassment has, over the years, stated several things. One is that harassment or discrimination by a supervisor or manager is often worse than similar conduct by peer employees. Additionally, many courts have also said that even just one use of the “N-word” packs sufficient harm in it to qualify as severe discrimination or harassment. When your case involves both of those elements, then chances are often high that, with representation from a knowledgeable New Jersey race discrimination lawyer, you will be able to overcome a defense motion for summary judgment and have your “day in court” before a jury.

A recent race discrimination case from North Jersey is an illustration of these recurring issues. The workers were five Black employees who worked for an air conditioning systems and service company.

The crux of the workers’ case arose in April 2018 when their supervisor took what he declared to be a “prank call” in his office during a break. The call, which the supervisor put on speakerphone, featured a voice who spoke in a “Donald Duck-like” voice while threatening violence and including the N-word in his comments. According to the lawsuit, the supervisor put the call on speakerphone “with no prompting” from the other people in his office at the time.

Allegedly, the supervisor laughed while listening and laughed again when a second similar call took place later the same day.

Shortly after the calls, the Black workers filed a complaint with the employer’s human resources department regarding the supervisor’s handling of the call and his behavior while the call played. The supervisor later apologized to most of the Black workers, enrolled in a training class, and received an assignment to a different shift in which he no longer supervised the workers who complained.

The workers sued for racial harassment and they successfully defeated the employer’s request for summary judgment on their hostile work environment claim. One of the most fundamental things to know — when your employer seeks to get your case thrown out on summary judgment -– is that the court must find an absence of legitimate dispute about any of the case’s material facts. So, when it comes to a factual question, it generally must be undisputed or irrelevant, or else the case proceeds to trial.

In these workers’ cases, many facts were in dispute. In addition to whether the supervisor put the call on the speakerphone of his own volition or at the behest of others, the two sides also disputed whether or not the supervisor laughed during the call. Furthermore, the supervisor alleged that the caller used slurs/epithets against multiple groups, including women, whites, and Latinos (in addition to Blacks,) whereas the plaintiffs asserted that the N-word was the only epithet the caller used.

The two sides also disagreed about whether the supervisor hung up on the call or allowed it to play to its end, and whether the call was very short (roughly 15 seconds) or more prolonged (60 seconds or more.)

A ‘Reasonable Jury Could’ Find a ‘Discriminatory Effect’

These alleged facts by the workers were enough to defeat any chance the employer might have had for a summary judgment on the racially hostile work environment claim. The court explained that a “reasonable jury could conclude that the call lasted more than fifteen seconds and that [the supervisor] did nothing to stop the racist epithets and threats from continuing…A reasonable jury could conclude that the failure to immediately end the call had a discriminatory effect.”

Additionally, the workers had a viable argument that the discrimination was severe. The court noted that a “reasonable jury could conclude the call was allowed to play for a prolonged period,” meaning that the supervisor knowingly exposed his Black subordinates “to repeated use of the n-word and threatening language.” Even though the supervisor did not utter the slur himself, the fact (if proven) that he knowingly exposed his Black workers to repeated utterances of the epithet was potentially enough to amount to severe discrimination.

Black workers are entitled to go to work and do their jobs in workplaces free from vile harassment like the use of the N-word. They’re also entitled to workplaces where their supervisors work to stamp out such harassment, rather than laugh at it. If you have endured harassment like this, you may be entitled to significant relief. Get in touch with the experienced New Jersey race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We’ve successfully represented harmed workers around New Jersey and we’re here to help you fight for justice. Contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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