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Employment Law Alert: Sixth Circuit Says Racist Remarks, Though “Absolutely Terrible,” Insufficient To Establish Racial Harassment Claim

On August 24, the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion affirming summary judgment in favor of Ford Motor Company. In Long v. Ford Motor Company, the plaintiffs, Donald Long (Black) and Manuel Pedro (Hispanic), alleged that they had been subjected to a racially hostile working environment based on the occasional use of racial epithets by their co-workers. Long’s claim was based on the testimony of certain co-workers, who said that they had heard others refer to him as “Black son of a b___h,” and “Black b_____d.” There was also some testimony that co-workers regularly used the “N” word at work. Interestingly, and perhaps fatal to his case, Long did not testify that these epithets were directed at him personally, nor that he actually heard these alleged comments made. Pedro’s claim was based primarily on the alleged comments of a fellow mechanic, whom Pedro claimed called him a “wetback” and “Puerto Rican spic” on several occasions. Additionally, during a dispute between Pedro and this same co-worker -- which occurred in the presence of management -- the co-worker called Pedro a “fat Puerto Rican” and a “fat motherf___ing Puerto Rican.” Pedro also testified that another mechanic called him a “f___ing Puerto Rican” during a dispute over whether a particular repair had been completed.

While the Court noted that the complained-of comments were “utterly deplorable,” it nevertheless held that they were insufficient to have created an racially hostile working environment as a matter of law. With respect to Pedro’s claims, the Court noted that the comments to which he had allegedly been subjected were isolated incidents that could not give rise to a claim under Title VII. Additionally, Pedro had not alleged that Ford was aware of these comments and failed to take appropriate action. In fact, the opposite was true. As for Long, the Court held that, while the statements allegedly made about him by co-workers were “absolutely terrible” and had “no place in the workplace or elsewhere,” they, too, were insufficient to have created a racially hostile working environment.

Bottom Line

This decision will be helpful to employers in defending against hostile environment claims. It makes it clear that sporadic comments made by co-workers -- even those that are highly offensive -- will generally not give rise to a claim under Title VII. While the Court did not specifically say so, it may well have considered the context in which the comments were allegedly made -- on the floor of an automobile assembly plant as opposed to an office -- in reaching the conclusion it did.



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