The childhood playground adage that sticks and stones may break bones but words can do no harm is quite simply false. When words are strong enough and said in a certain context, they can do great harm. Thankfully, a recent ruling by the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit holds that when even a single statement is egregious enough, an employee may bring suit against his or her employer for race discrimination or other forms of harassment.
The case that inspired the holding was brought on behalf of a black, male Fannie Mae employee born in Cameroon. After being subjected to an inequitable pay situation allegedly rooted in racial discrimination, he filed a complaint internally. A few days after lodging this complaint, a supervisor ordered him from his office and hurled a deeply offensive slur at him historically used to denigrate black people.
When he brought a discrimination suit against his employer, the claim was originally rejected because a single offensive slur was considered by the lower court to be insufficient evidence of a hostile work environment. However, the D.C. Circuit has created new precedent with this case's holding that a single utterance, if egregious enough, can be grounds for a hostile environment claim.
In this case, the utterance of perhaps the most racially denigrating word in our language hurled by an employer at an employee provided substantial enough grounds to allow the claim to move forward. This new precedent will help to ensure that employers are held accountable in similar situations and that no employee will be forced to swallow that kind of treatment without an avenue for recourse.
Source: Lawyers.com, "One Slur Enough to Bring Racial Harassment Case, Court Rules," Aaron Kase, Apr. 18, 2013