I had planned to blog about this Fifth Circuit decision for a while. The appellate court concluded that a plaintiff who had pleaded that his supervisor directly called him a “Lazy Monkey A__ N___” in front of his fellow employees stated an actionable claim of hostile work environment.
But then I read this federal court decision from Illinois about a black man who claimed that his employer retaliated against him by creating a hostile work environment with a noose.
There was more to the hostile work environment claim than just a noose. The plaintiff claimed that after complaining about discrimination, his employer subjected him to a “campaign of harassment,” which included:
- taking away his vehicle,
- leaving a toy rat at his work station,
- co-workers failing to assist him on joint projects,
- excluding him from work meetings and training,
- denying him necessary work materials,
- giving him unsafe work assignments, and
- leaving a noose in his workplace.
The court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff had established that all of these incidents combined reflected materially adverse action — a hostile work environment created to chill the plaintiff from complaining about discrimination.
But what caught my attention was the court’s suggestion that the noose alone could create a hostile work environment. Here’s what the court said:
The Court declines to find, as a matter of law, that a single instance of a noose displayed in the workplace, arguably directed at a particular African American employee who had complained of race discrimination, is insufficiently severe to support a retaliatory hostile work environment claim…The noose alone qualifies as an extremely serious act of harassment based on race and is meant to convey a threat of physical harm and to arouse fear in the person to whom it is directed…The noose in this context is a symbol not just of racial discrimination or of disapproval, but of terror.” (cleaned up)
Even though the plaintiff could not identify who hung up the noose, how long the noose was hanging before he observed it, how long the noose remained hanging, or how the noose was specifically targeted at him, there was enough for a factfinder to conclude that someone intentionally left the noose for the plaintiff to find.
Does a noose in the workplace automatically impose liability on an employer? No. Last month, I wrote here about a case involving a noose in which the employer prevailed/. Why? That employer had anti-harassment measures in place (e.g., a policy and a complaint procedure), took seriously complaints of discrimination by investigating them, and otherwise acted reasonably to end the complained-of behavior.