A supervisor’s use of isolated but offensive racial slurs directed at and in the presence of an employee can give rise to a claim for a hostile work environment under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) on their own. Rios v. Meda Pharm., Inc., 2021 N.J. LEXIS 553 (June 16, 2021). This is because the use of a racial epithet exacerbates its severity when uttered by a supervisor.

Plaintiff Armando Rios, Jr., a Hispanic employee, worked at Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc and alleged that his supervisor subjected him to a hostile work environment on account of two racial slurs directed at him while at work. According to Rios, during a conversation with his supervisor about Rios’ intentions to purchase a new home, his supervisor allegedly said, “it must be hard for a Sp– to have to get FHA loans.” About a month later, Rios’ supervisor allegedly made another racial comment while casting a role for a commercial that an actress “would work if she didn’t look too Sp–ky.” Rios claims he met with Human Resources after each incident and reported his supervisor’s comments, however, the Human Resources Director was dismissive and did not take action to remedy the situation. Rios filed a complaint asserting claims under, inter alia, the LAD, alleging a hostile work environment was created by his supervisor’s use of racial slurs. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding no rational factfinder could conclude Rios’ supervisor’s comments were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. The Superior Court Appellate Division affirmed those findings, and the issue was appealed to the State Supreme Court.

The overarching goal of the LAD is “nothing less than the eradication of the cancer of discrimination.” Fuchilla v. Layman, 109 N.J. 319, 334 (1988). To state a claim for a hostile work environment under the LAD and defeat summary judgment, a plaintiff must allege that the complained-of conduct (1) would not have occurred but for the employee’s protected class; and (2) it was severe or pervasive enough to make a (3) reasonable Hispanic person believe that (4) the conditions of employment are altered, and the working environment is hostile or abusive. Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, 132 N.J. 587, 603-04 (1993) (hostile work environment claim based on supervisor’s acts of alleged sexual harassment). The Lehmann standard applies generally to hostile work environment claims, including claims based on racial comments. Id.; See Taylor v. Metzger, 152 N.J. 490, 498-500 (1998). Hostile work environment claims must be evaluated in light of all of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or merely an offensive utterance, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. Cutler v. Dorn, 196 N.J. 419, 432 (2008).

Here, the second element of the claim – whether the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive—is the central focus of the Court’s analysis. In the majority of cases, the cumulative impact of successive incidents is what gives rise to a hostile work environment, however, in rare and extreme cases, a single incident can also create a hostile work environment. Cutler, 196 N.J. at 432; Taylor, 152 N.J. at 499-501. In the case where the racial epithet is made by a supervisor, the severity of the remark can be exacerbated, rising to a level sufficiently severe to establish a claim under the LAD even if used only once because supervisors should be the ones preventing, not creating the hostile work environment. Taylor, 152 N.J. at 502-04 (where the supervisor who made the racial remarks to the employee was a high-ranking supervisor in front of other high-ranking supervisors). The courts use an objective standard to evaluate a hostile work environment claim, viewing the remarks from the perspective of a reasonable Hispanic person in the plaintiff’s position. Rios, 2021 N.J. LEXIS 553, at *16.

The Rios Court held that the two uses of the racial slur by Rios’ supervisor are sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a genuine issue of material fact and call for a trial on the merits. With respect to the supervisor’s utterance of a racial slurs directed at and in the presence of Rios, the Court deemed the language allegedly spoken to have no place in the work setting. The word used embodies a history of disdain toward Latinos and people of Hispanic groups. Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic, Understanding Words That Wound 56-59 (2018). The fact that it was Rios’ direct supervisor who allegedly made such ugly and insulting statements adds to the severity of the remarks because a person’s direct supervisor is often charged with evaluating an employee’s performance and has a say in the employee’s future within the organization. Given those circumstances, bigoted comments like the ones alleged can portray an attitude of prejudice that could taint every future interaction between an employee and their supervisor, infecting the work environment with hostility and abuse.

If you are subject to a hostile work environment because of your race or national origin, call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help. Mashel Law, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, is dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.

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