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It is Worse When a Supervisor Says It

In a recent case before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, an African-American male sued his employer for discrimination under Title VII. Fred Gates worked as a building engineer for the Chicago Board of Education for over a decade. In 2012, he reported to a new supervisor, Rafael Rivera. Gates and Rivera saw each other just a couple of times a month because Rivera circulated among many locations. Gates alleged that during a performance review, Rivera told Gates he would not be promoted because of his age and because he was “black.” Gates was not promoted. According to Gates, Rivera’s hostility towards him continued to escalate. When Rivera passed gas in Gates’ vicinity on one occasion, Rivera said that a black man sitting near someone passing gas is called a “shit-sniffing ni----r.” Gates complained but was told to keep it to himself. Gates also claimed that Rivera said he was going to write Gates’s “black ass up” and referred to Gates as “n----r” on another occasion. Rivera’s comments were made over a six-month period approximately three times or so a month.
In his case before the district court, summary judgment was granted in favor of the Chicago Board of Education. According to that court, Gates failed to provide sufficient proof that he was subjected to a hostile work environment. To meet the standard, Gates had to show the harassment was “severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.” The district court asserted that “the threshold for plaintiffs is high, as [t]he workplace that is actionable is one that is ‘hellish.’”
The Seventh Circuit disagreed with the level of severity required, noting that employees need not show “a descent into the Inferno.” Moreover, the appellate court reflected that the district court relied on a series of cites where a co-worker was uttering the racially offensive language. “We have repeatedly treated a supervisor’s use of racially toxic language in the workplace as much more serious than a co-worker’s…This is particularly true when supervisors address these derogatory and humiliating remarks directly to the employee in question.” Gates’ case was sent back for further proceedings.