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U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether hangman’s noose creates racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII


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pkryder

By Patricia Porter Kryder

An employee was a senior HVAC mechanic at a university in California, when a hangman’s noose was placed in a maintenance warehouse. The employee was an African-American man and his supervisor was not. When he and another African-American coworker discovered the noose, the employee felt intimidated, harassed, and threatened. The employee said the university acknowledged that the operational noose was hung by his supervisor, whom he already knew to harbor discrimination against African-Americans. The employee claimed that the action created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. 

The federal district court disagreed. Although the Court acknowledged that a single, harassing incident may be enough to be “extremely severe” if it included violence or the threat of violence, in this situation, the court found the noose could not serve as a threat of violence because it was not hung in the employee’s personal work area (such as a locker) and lacked a note or picture or other indication that this employee was the specific target of the display.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the federal district court and affirmed the district court’s decision to rule in the employer’s favor without holding a trial on the matter. The Ninth Circuit found the employee failed to make a prima facie case of a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The courts agreed that the noose was not targeted clearly enough at the employee to be one of those single acts of harassment that are threatening enough to create a hostile work environment.

In affirming the federal district court’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit concluded that, as a matter of law, there was nothing inherently racial about the operational hangman’s noose that the employee encountered in his employer’s warehouse. This holding of the Ninth Circuit was in contrast with holdings of the Seventh, Tenth, Eleventh and District of Columbia Circuit Courts of Appeal, which involved situations with a hangman’s noose in which the symbol of racial violence was directed to a specific individual in the workplace. 

In petitioning the United States Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, the employee argued that the fact that the perpetrator did not adorn the noose “with exceptionally obvious indicia of his animus, or place it in an equally obvious location,” should not alone determine “severity.” To hold otherwise, would give incentive and leeway to those who harbor violent racist tendencies “to promulgate racial terror in the workplace so long as the violent objects appear non-specific or generalized.” The employee stated that “a hangman’s noose is perhaps the most severe non-verbal form of race harassment possible.”

 

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