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Court: Less Than 'Hellish' Workplace Still Hostile Environment

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

A man didn't have to show his work was "hellish" to sue for a hostile work environment, a federal appeals court said.

In Gates v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, a black building engineer said his workplace was hostile because a supervisor threatened him racially and called him the "N" word.

It's one thing when a co-worker says something like that, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said, but it's a discrimination lawsuit when a supervisor says it.

"Into the Inferno"

Fred Gates was working for the Chicago Board of Education, when he took a leave of absence because he felt harassed. He said Rafael Rivera, a facilities manager, called him the "N" word and threatened to discipline his "black ass."

He filed a racial discrimination complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but the trial court dismissed it. The judge said Gates didn't show the alleged abuse was "hellish."

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed and said it was enough that a jury could decide whether it was severe or pervasive.

"While a 'hellish' workplace is surely actionable, plaintiff's evidence need not show a descent into the Inferno," Judge David F. Hamilton wrote for the appeals panel.

Three Racial Slurs

Rivera allegedly used the racial slurs three times over a period of six months. The appeals court said it probably would not have been actionable if a co-worker had said it.

But, the appeals panel said, a jury could find it was severe and humiliating for a supervisor to use such "toxic language."

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