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Single Racial Epithet Enough for Hostile Work Environment Per Fifth Circuit

Anthony Woods worked for French Market Corporation (“French Market”) first as a “laborer” and then as a painter. Woods describes himself as a “dark-skinned black man.” He claims French Market treated white, light-skinned, and Hispanic employees more favorably than dark-skinned and Black employees. Woods asserts his supervisor, an individual of Hispanic descent, referred to him as a “Lazy Monkey A__ N____” in front of his co-workers. He also alleges he was fired without justification and retaliated against for complaining.

Representing himself, Woods appealed the dismissal of his discrimination claims by a trial court. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of his claims except for the hostile work environment claim. The district court had dismissed the hostile work environment claims because “a single utterance of a racial epithet, despicable as it is, cannot support a hostile work environment claim.” That dismissal aligned with a prior Fifth Circuit decision asserting the same. In Wood’s case, the Fifth Circuit reinstated his claim after looking at the totality of the circumstances. It also noted cases from other jurisdictions finding that the “use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as the [N-word] by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates” could support a hostile work environment claim.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting Wood’s appeal. The government pointed out the trial court’s failure to give sufficient weight to the supervisor’s use of several highly offensive words in the comment. This ruling marks the first time the Fifth Circuit has upheld a claim of a hostile work environment based on a single epithet. In response to a Reuters reporter, Woods said he did not know how the Department of Justice learned of his case.