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Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as other anti-discrimination statutes, requires employers to prohibit discrimination based upon race, gender, or any other incorrect classifications. The United States Supreme Court has established that conduct violating these statutes can arise not only from economic or tangible discrimination, but also from a workplace that is “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of an employee’s employment relationship and create an abusive working environment.” This later form of discrimination has come to be known as “hostile work environment” discrimination.

Standard for stating a claim of a hostile work environment

The Fifth Circuit United States Court of Appeals has stated that an employee must allege the following in order to adequately state such a claim:

  1. Membership in a protected organization
  2. Unwelcome harassment of a protected characteristic that affects a term/condition of employment is unacceptable
  3. Harassment in situations where the employer knew of harassment or should have known about it and failed to take prompt remedial actions.

How pervasive must the hostile work environment be?

In Woods v. Cantrell, the Fifth Circuit recently approved a rare “single event” claim of hostile work environment situation which portends potential hazards for employers.

The case focused upon the wording of an African-American employee’s complaint which raised, among other claims, a claim for hostile work environment. To support that claim, the employee alleged that in the presence of others in the workplace, his supervisor, a person of a different ethnic descent, called him a racial epithet identified in the decision as “Lazy Monkey A___ N___.”

This was the only incident cited by an employee. This claim of hostile work environment had been dismissed by the court below on the basis that “a single utterance of a racial epithet, despicable as it is, cannot support a hostile work environment claim.”

This conclusion was not supported by the Court of Appeals.

It acknowledged that prior decisions had not clarified the extent to which one hostile act could be considered a hostile work environment violation. Even so, in reviewing decisions from other Courts of Appeals around the United States, the Fifth Circuit acknowledged that “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 as the ‘N-Word’ by a supervisor in the presence of subordinates.” In evaluating the legal landscape presented in this case, the Court went on to quote from another decision that characterized the “N-Word” as “probably the most offensive word in English.”

A single event can create a hostile work environment

Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit found that the employee’s actionable claim of hostile working environment, as identified by him in this case, was admissible to damages if supported by sufficient proof.

See Also

In the wake of this rejuvenation of “single event” hostile work environment claims, employers are well-advised to counsel their supervisory staff about the hazards of using, Accepting or tolerating the usage ofWorkplace epithets that are racial or ethnic

Employers can be held responsible for a hostile work environment claim if they knew or should have known about unlawful harassment and failed promptly to correct it. Given the potential exposure to single event hostile work environment claims, employers must now recognize that such “prompt action” may well have to occur BeforeA supervisor makes an offensive comment based on what an employer knew or should know. Before that single event.


Employers are at risk if they don’t properly train and discipline supervisors regarding workplace conduct. This is evident in the recent hostile work environment decision. This training must be repeated often to ensure that workplace conduct standards are met. Jackson Walker’s employment lawyersThey can assist with the creation and administration of such policies to help employers combat potentially toxic work environments.

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