Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case Involving N-Word in Workplace

The Equal Justice Society expressed its disappointment in the decision on May 17 by the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear Robert Collier v. Dallas County Hospital District dba Parkland Health & Hospital System, a case where a Black hospital employee was constantly exposed to the N-word, in what he and EJS assert was a Title VII civil rights violation.

Media Coverage with Quotes from EJS:

  • Reuters: As SCOTUS declines racial slur case, civil rights lawyers say they’ll keep pushing
  • Bloomberg Law: ‘N-Word’ as Hostile Work Trigger Left in Gray Area by High Court 

Robert Collier was a former operating room aide at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas where he was exposed to the slur every day because it was carved into the elevator he took to work.

The Equal Justice Society (EJS) and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP on March 18, 2021, filed an amicus brief in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of social scientists, scholars, and civil rights organizations in support of a former hospital worker’s racial bias suit.

The brief argued that the word’s historical association to violence and its consequent physical and psychic assaultive impact means that even a single use of the N-word “annihilates the well-being” of its target and constitutes discrimination sufficient to create a hostile work environment under Title VII.

Statement from Mona Tawatao, EJS Legal Director:

“As civil rights advocates, we owed Mr. Collier and the countless others like him who have endured the psychic and physical injury of the N-word in the workplace our support.  Revulsion toward the N-word slur is near universal and we believe most people would agree that when it is inflicted in the workplace, even once, a jury should decide whether its severity warrants holding the employer liable. This shared understanding of the harm of the word and basic notions of fairness, coupled with circuit court split on this issue made supporting Mr. Collier’s petition for review an easy decision.  Sadly, the N-word continues to be wielded as a weapon in the workplace too often and the critical work of Black scholars that we uplift in our brief paves the way for the Supreme Court to do justice on this issue, we hope in the near future.

“The set of amicus briefs helped put the issue of prevalence of the use of the N-word, its history, and the depth of its harms in front of and further into the consciousness of the Supreme Court.  The briefing further enables social science and legal scholars to coalesce around, highlight, and educate others of their collective work around the issue and how the word’s persistence and perniciousness should be addressed   Sadly, because of the persistence of the N-word’s use as a slur in the workplace, this issue will undoubtedly come before the Supreme Court again.  The Court is not impervious to evolving public opinion nor should it be as the Obergefell (marriage equality) and other landmark decisions illustrate.  Even in not succeeding this time, the amicus brief serves to further both the Supreme Court’s and the public’s understanding of the continuing physical and psychic harm that the N-word inflicts, and increases the likelihood that the Court will resolve the circuit split and do justice on this issue at its next opportunity.”

Statement from Lisa Holder, EJS Of Counsel:

“We are resolute in our belief that N-word has no business in the workplace.  The scholarship that coalesced around this case provides the foundation for anti-harassment workplace policy and jurisprudence that the advocates, courts and legislators can leverage to effect change. SCOTUS missed an important opportunity to offer Mr. Collier a measure of justice and to resolve this circuit split in a manner consistent with the nation’s evolving mores.  Nevertheless, change is here and even this Court will have to move in a progressive direction to accommodate that evolution in the workplace and beyond.”

The brief was filed by Kelly M. Dermody, Daniel M. Hutchinson, Evan J. Ballan, Michelle A. Lamy, Jessica A. Moldovan, and Nigar A. Shaikh of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP; Eva Paterson, Mona Tawatao and Christina Alvernaz, of the Equal Justice Society, and Lisa Holder, of counsel to EJS.

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