Melissa Quinn, CBS News, May 17, 2021
The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a legal battle involving one of the most offensive words in the English language, spurning a case raising whether its utterance in the workplace even one time creates a hostile work environment.
The justices turned away an appeal from Robert Collier, a Texas man who sued the hospital where he was employed. Collier said supervisors ignored complaints about a carving of the N-word on the wall of an elevator he and other hospital workers often used. In rejecting the case, a ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the hospital remains intact.
The question in the dispute was whether a single use, or “mere utterance,” of a racial epithet like the N-word gives rise to a hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race.
Collier, a Black man who worked as an operating room aide for seven years, brought the suit after he was fired from Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas in 2016, claiming the hospital created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
White nurses, he said, called Black employees “boy,” and two swastikas painted on the wall of a storage room were ignored despite employees reporting them to hospital management. But at the crux of Collier’s dispute was the carving of the N-word into the elevator wall. The former hospital aide said while he complained multiple times to supervisors about the incendiary graffiti and hate symbols, they remained untouched for months, and their presence made the hospital a hostile work environment.
A federal district court in Texas sided with the Dallas hospital, finding Collier’s work environment was not sufficiently abusive to constitute a hostile work environment. The court, however, acknowledged the N-word is “racially offensive and universally condemned,” and said the swastikas “could be interpreted as offensive to Collier” because of his race.
A three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit agreed, noting in previous decisions it found the “oral utterance of the N-word and other racially derogatory terms, even in the presence of the plaintiff, may be insufficient to establish a hostile work environment.”
“The conduct that Collier complains of was not physically threatening, was not directed at him (except for the nurse’s comment), and did not unreasonably interfere with his work performance,” the 5th Circuit found. “In fact, Collier admitted that the graffiti interfered with his work performance by only one percent.”