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Courtroom Cue: New Jersey Supreme Court rules that employer could be liable for two racial slurs

By: Cristina N. Hyde, JD

Reminding New Jersey business owners of the importance of anti-discrimination training and written anti-discrimination policies, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently determined that an employer could be held liable for the utterance of two racially offensive comments by a supervisor.  Rios v. Meda Pharm., Inc., ___ N.J. ___ (2021)  In reversing  the appellate division’s decision to affirm the trial court’s summary judgment, the Supreme Court explained that the critical issue in the matter was whether conduct was sufficiently severe and pervasive so as to create a hostile work environment. Such a determination must be viewed within the context of the circumstances and, because a rational jury could reach that conclusion, the plaintiff should have his day in court.

In the case at issue, the plaintiff was an employee of the defendant company when his supervisor used a racial slur toward him, on two separate occasions, while at work.  The plaintiff allegedly reported the offensive comments to the company’s Human Resources department and claims no action was taken.  Thereafter, the plaintiff was placed on probation for poor performance and ultimately fired.  As a result, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging, in part, that he was subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).

In New Jersey, workplace harassment and hostile work environment claims fall within the purview of the NJLAD because harassment is a form or workplace discrimination. Harassment can be any form of unwelcome conduct based on membership in a protected class.  Employers have a legal obligation to not only prevent harassment from occurring, but to also have an appropriate mechanism in place for addressing harassment complaints including an investigation process and a plan for remedial action.  When an employer fails to do so, and a victim can prove the harassment was severe and pervasive enough so as to create a hostile or abusive environment, an employer can be legally responsible for damages.

Employers should receive this ruling as a reminder of how important it is to educate workers and foster an environment of communication where it is clear that any harassment will not be tolerated and where employees can safely raise concerns and be confident that they will be addressed in an appropriate manner. As always, knowledge and prevention are crucial.

If you have any questions about this ruling or would like assistance reviewing, drafting or revising your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and procedures, Contact Us.

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