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Company must defend hostile workplace claim over N-word

A racial epithet can satisfy the elements of a hostile work environment claim and is sufficient under the motion-to-dismiss standard, even if it’s allegedly used as a colloquial greeting, a federal judge has ruled.

In Young v. Columbia Farms, Inc., the defendant company claimed that a white supervisor had used the N-word as a relaxed, informal salutation to an African-American employee, who said  he found the epithet offensive and harassing.

In a Sept. 5 ruling, U.S. District Judge Donald Coggins Jr. agreed with the worker’s depiction of the word’s use.

“Defendant’s characterization of Plaintiff’s supervisor’s use of an incredibly offensive word as a ‘poor choice of words’ is both legally and factually indefensible, and Plaintiff has pled a plausible claim for hostile work environment,” Coggins wrote.

The plaintiff, Kenneth Young, filed his complaint under Section 1981 and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Acts, but consented to the dismissal of his Title VII claim.

Not doing so well, actually

Young had worked at Columbia Farms (also known as House of Raeford Farms), a slaughterhouse and chicken processing plant in Greenville County, for nearly four years when he was terminated. According to the employer, Young was fired after an altercation with a coworker.

Young contended that he was defending himself from a knife-wielding attacker and, further, that the incident was a ruse to terminate him. The real reason the 61-year-old black man was let go from his job, he argued, is because he complained about one of his white supervisors routinely referring to him as the N-word.

According to Young’s complaint, two supervisors, one of whom is possibly Latino, would regularly welcome him to work with phrases such as “How ya doing, my [N-word]?”

Columbia Farms conceded that this greeting was a “poor choice of words spoken generally by way of greeting,” but argued that the allegations did not plausibly allege harassment that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive work environment. In argued that the alleged conduct was “simply too trivial to ‘make a federal case over.”

Despite Young’s contention that the slur was used “colloquially,” his attorney, Candy Kern-Fuller of Upstate Law Group in Easley, said that he was offended enough by it to report it.

“Importantly, Defendant does not dispute the term was used nor that Plaintiff complained about it,” she wrote in an email. “Even more offensive is that it wasn’t just that the supervisor referred to Mr. Young as a ‘[N-word], but as ‘my [N-word]—implying he ‘owned’ Mr. Young or that he ‘belonged to’ the Caucasian supervisor.”

Columbia Farms’s attorney, Betsy Dorminey of Wimberly Lawson in Athens, Georgia, chalked the incidents up to a “cultural misunderstanding,” adding that after Young’s complaint, the supervisor stopped using the word.

“This is somebody who’s trying to meet people where they are and use language that he’s actually hearing around him,” she said. “Turns out that this is a not a word he should be saying, you know, and he stands corrected.”

More than words

Coggins accepted a magistrate judge’s determination that Young was repeatedly referred to as the N-word and that after filing a complaint with upper management, the relationship with his supervisor deteriorated. In a recommendation finding that Young had properly and plausibly alleged the required elements of a hostile work environment claim, the judge cited a 2001 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision which held that the word is more than a mere offensive utterance, but “pure anathema to African-Americans.”

“Perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as [N-word] by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates,” Coggins wrote.

Other courts, Coggins added, have held that even the single use of the word can constitute a hostile work environment under Section 1981.

Dorminey said it was important to keep in mind that the case is one of retaliation, not harassment.

“In this case we thought that since he had failed to make the allegations about when [the harassment and his termination] happened and he was basing his claim really on retaliation … when we get to the merits, one of the arguments here is that this is a cultural misunderstanding,” she said. “At the same time … this is a nuclear word, and it’s one that gets people very excited—it may be that word is enough to get you over the hurdle.”

The eight-page decision is Young v. Columbia Farms, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-194-18). A digest of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher

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