Articles Posted in Race Discrimination

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).

Employer dress codes aimed toward the legitimate business interests of professionalism, safety, hygiene and neatness are legal. However, natural hair or hairstyles associated with African Americans, such as dreadlocks, have been historically stereotyped and perceived as unprofessional against Euro-centric standards of beauty. A simple google search of “unprofessional hairstyles” reveals many images of African Americans in natural hair or braids. This sort of discrimination has subjected people across the United States to “dignitary, psychological, physiological, and financial harm.” Federal, state and local government entities have long recognized that policies which “discriminate against traditionally Black hairstyles… qualify as discrimination on the basis of race.” See EEOC Dec. No. 71-2444, 1971 WL 3898, (1971) (“the wearing of an Afro-American hair style by a Negro has been so appropriated as a cultural symbol by members of the Negro race as to make its suppression either an automatic badge of racial prejudice or a necessary abridgment of first amendment rights.”).

Recent increased incidents of discriminatory hair-grooming policies and practices directed towards people of color in schools and the workplace has brought renewed attention on this issue. For example, a white New Jersey referee forced a black high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks before a match or face disqualification; a 6 year boy in Florida was barred from attending a private Christian academy on his first day of school because his hair extended below his ears; and an 11 year old black girl was sent home from a private Roman catholic school in Louisiana because she broke a rule on wearing hair extensions. In 2018, “54 percent of reported bias incidents in New Jersey were motivated by the victim’s race, ethnicity, or national origin. Of those, approximately 72 percent were anti-Black.” See DCR Guidance

As a consequence of this uptick in hair based discriminatory conduct, a growing movement has developed to better protect Black employees from discrimination in the workplace based on hairstyle thereby recognizing the importance of hair to cultural identity and the historically discriminatory treatment people of color have received because of their natural hair. Indeed, this past summer Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed the Crown Act into law making it illegal in California to enforce dress code or grooming policies against hairstyles such as afros, braids, twists and locks.

Although a Plaintiff may attempt to prove his discrimination claim by showing how he was treated differently than similarly situated workers not of his protected class, e.g., race, according to a recent decision of the federal District Court of New Jersey there must be little or no difference in the offered comparator evidence other than the protected class characteristic of the Plaintiff. Wilson v. M & M Mgmt. Co., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107955 (D.N.J. decided June 27, 2019). For example, in the race discrimination claim brought in Wilson, the Court required an African American Plaintiff to show there was no discernable difference between his conduct and those of the Caucasian coworkers he was comparing himself to other than their race. Unfortunately, for Aaron Wilson he was not able to do so.

Plaintiff Aaron Wilson worked as a driver for Defendant M & M Management Company which housed a thrift store located in West Berlin, New Jersey. Id. at *1. Wilson was terminated in January 2016, after which he filed a lawsuit against his employer alleging hostile, work environment, retaliation and wrongful discharge based on his African American race under both Title VII and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) Id. at *6-7. Wilson alleged that M & M terminated him in retaliation for his complaints about a white coworker’s racially discriminatory behavior toward him. Id. However, M & M argued instead that the actual reason for Wilson’s termination was his excessive documented disciplinary infractions over a period of two years. Id.

In its decision the district court emphasized that even though M & M met its burden of articulating a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for firing Wilson based on his extensive disciplinary record, Wilson would still have opportunity to prevail on his claims if he was able to show the reasons offered by the employer for firing him were pretextual, and in fact he was actually terminated in retaliation for the exercise of his protected right to complain of a racially biased hostile work environment. Id. (citing to McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) for the proposition that once a plaintiff makes prima facie showing of discrimination and a defendant successfully refutes it, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that defendant’s reasons were pretextual). To show pretext, the relevant standard requires a plaintiff to “demonstrate such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its actions that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them ‘unworthy of credence.’” Wilson at *11 (quoting Keller v. Orix Credit Alliance, 130 F.3d 1101, 1109 (3d Cir. 1997).

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