Court Holds Single Act Can Constitute Hostile Workplace

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held a single use of the “N-Word” by a supervisor may create a hostile work environment in Ayissi-Etoh v. Fannie Mae, No. 11-7127 (D.C. Cir. 2013).

Ayissi-Etoh involved an African-American plaintiff, Placide Ayissi-Etoh, alleging his former employer, Fannie Mae, unlawfully discriminated against him in violation of federal anti-discrimination statute 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

The former financial modeling team lead alleged several instances of discrimination in support of his claims. Ayissi-Etoh first pointed to a conversation he had with a supervisor regarding his salary. The plaintiff had recently been promoted along with 11 white co-workers. However, unlike his white peers, Ayissi-Etoh hadn’t received a corresponding pay raise. He inquired as to why this was, and his white supervisor replied “For a young black man smart like you, we are happy to have your expertise; I think I’m already paying you a lot of money.” Ayissi-Etoh also alleged that a different white supervisor yelled “Get out of my office [n-word]” at him during an unrelated heated exchange. The plaintiff responded by filing a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), at which point his employer reportedly gave him an ultimatum: drop the complaint or lose your job. Ayissi-Etoh was subsequently fired.

Ayissi-Etoh brought suit against Fannie Mae in a D.C. federal court alleging in relevant part that Fannie Mae unlawfully denied him a pay raise, maintained a hostile work environment, and retaliated against him in contravention of federal anti-discrimination law. The supervisors implicated in the suit both denied making the “young smart black man” and “n-word” statements, and Fannie Mae moved for summary judgment.

The district court granted Fannie Mae’s motion for summary judgment and Ayissi-Etoh appealed. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals first held the “young black man” statement was direct evidence of discrimination, and therefore amounted to a sufficient showing of discrimination to proceed to trial.

The court further held that the single use of the “n-word” constituted an adequate showing that Ayissi-Etoh was subjected to the required “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult” severe enough to “alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” The court reasoned that while a hostile work environment claim examines the “totality of the circumstances,” a single instance of the unambiguously racial epithet could change the conditions of employment and thus create a hostile work environment.

Ayissi-Etoh presents a rare case where a single incident of especially offensive contact can result in a hostile work environment. While such cases are rare, Ayissi-Etoh is not unique. The case, therefore, should serve as a reminder to employers to be mindful of their supervisors’ actions. This decision illustrates that a hostile work environment doesn’t necessarily manifest over months, weeks, or even days; instead, even a single instance of discriminatory conduct can be adequate to make such a showing.

A full copy of the decision is available here.

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