Three racial slurs over a period of six months can be "severe" or "pervasive"

Fred Gates alleges that his direct supervisor —

  • addressed him with the N-word twice

  • once threatened to write up his "black ass."

Gates sued claiming a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer. The 7th Circuit reversed. Gates v. Bd of Educ of Chicago (7th Cir 02/20/2019) [PDF].

The 7th Circuit scolded the trial court for requiring a "hellish" workplace before one can establish a hostile work environment.

The court also emphasized that when analyzing whether workplace conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive, one must distinguish whether a co-worker as opposed to a supervisor uttered the racially offensive language. The court said,

"We have repeatedly treated a supervisor's use of racially toxic language in the workplace as much more serious than a co-worker's." "This is particularly true when supervisors address these derogatory and humiliating remarks directly to the employees in question."

The court also said that three racial slurs in a sixth-month period of a four-year employment was not too infrequent to be pervasive.