Sometimes, it seems like the sports section is more like a legal update. Recently, you may have followed the story about the Miami Dolphins.
A 320-pound offensive tackle claimed he was the victim of racial harassment and a hostile work environment. Once we get past the concept of a 320-pound professional football player being “harassed,” we realize that this case is potentially similar to other workplace incidents we have discussed.
Unfortunately, race-based harassment and hostile environment cases do exist. Within the last year, several cases were decided which shed light on this type of claim.
In the first case, the court looked at the motivation behind the conduct. A black employee sued his former employer for racial harassment, alleging he found banana peels on his truck, and that white co-workers threatened him after he complained to management about employees wearing Confederate apparel. The court held a jury should decide if the banana incident was racially motivated (no bananas were found on other trucks driven by white drivers).
In a hostile work environment case, the challenged incidents must be severe or pervasive.
In a second case, a black employee presented evidence her supervisor made at least a dozen racist comments to her over 14 months. The court held the racial comments raised a triable issue that the plaintiff suffered from severe or pervasive harassment that altered her conditions of employment.
Finally, in the third case, the employer successfully raised legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons for its decision. A terminated black deputy sheriff sued his former employer for race discrimination. During the one year he worked, the employee disobeyed direct orders, failed to follow established procedures and told his superiors that he needed time to manage his newly opened hair salon.
These were non-discriminatory reasons for the decision. Interestingly, the employee also claimed that his workplace exposure to the film "Blazing Saddles" constituted a racially-charged workplace behavior. "Blazing Saddles" does highlight “behavior” (think campfire scene), but it isn’t racially biased.
The Miami Dolphins inquiry continues. The law applies to all workplaces and it requires that employees take necessary steps to prevent co-workers from creating a hostile work environment based on race.