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No Hostile Work Environment at Union for 'Jim Crow' Comments

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 19, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Over a sharp dissent about 'Jim Crow-like' comments, a federal appeals court said a black woman did not prove a hostile work environment against a union based on "a smattering of offensive conduct."

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said the plaintiff had a novel claim because the court had never addressed whether Title VII covers hostile work environment claims against a union. If the law applied, however, the court said the plaintiff did not have enough evidence to support her claim in Phillips v. UAW International.

"Whether unions can be held liable for a Title VII hostile work environment claim is only at issue if Phillips has made the adequate showing that there was a hostile work environment," Judge David McKeague said. "She hasn't. "

"Offensive and Condemnable"

A trial judge dismissed the complaint on several grounds, including a ruling that unions are not liable for hostile work environment claims. The appeals court questioned the ruling, and affirmed on other grounds.

The case arose after Tanganeka Phillips alleged that union representatives made racist comments in her presence over a two-year period. The comments included: there are "too many blacks" in the union; they needed "another black on staff to calm it down;" one member was intimidating because he was "big and black."

The last straw, Phillips said, was when the reps divided union grievances into two piles: "white" and "black." They said the "black" pile would be thrown out.

"These incidents, if true, are offensive and condemnable," the appeals court said. "But they are not actionable as a hostile work environment."

A hostile work environment claim requires, the court said, that the conduct be "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment." A "handful of offensive comments" over a two-year period were not sufficient in Phillips' case, the majority said.

"Jim Crow-Like"

Judge Gilbert S. Merritt,Jr., in dissent, said his colleagues had "unfairly" interpreted and distorted the facts. He said they were avoiding the issue -- whether Title VII protections extend to union workers.

"The result of this ploy is to wipe out the work place benefits for racial minorities and the improved work place environment that Congress intended," the judge said.

Jon Hyman, commenting on the case, also said the court avoided the key issue but was probably right in its conclusion.

"A few incidents of minor to slightly less minor severity spread over a two-year period is not sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute an actionable hostile working environment," he wrote for Workforce.

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