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Court sets different standard for supervisor vs. co-worker in bias case


A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling and reinstated a hostile work environment claim filed by an engineer for the Chicago Board of Education engineer, stating a different standard must be used in evaluating hostility expressed by a supervisor compared with that of a co-worker.

Fred Gates, an African-American building engineer for the Chicago Board of Education, began reporting to supervisor Rafael Rivera in December 2012, according to Wednesday’s ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in Fred Gates v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago.

Beginning in the late summer of 2013, Mr. Rivera’s behavior “became increasingly offensive,” according to the ruling. Incidents included Mr. Rivera’s use of the “n-word” twice and threatening to write up Mr. Gates’s “black ass.” Mr. Gates was reassigned to another position after he returned from leave in November 2014.

Mr. Gates filed suit in U.S. District Court in Chicago alleging age and race discrimination and retaliation. The court granted the board summary judgment on all charges dismissing the case.

A three-judge appeals court panel unanimously reinstated Mr. Gates’ hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The district court incorrectly held the threshold for plaintiffs is high because the workplace “that is actionable is one that is ‘hellish,’” said the ruling. “While a ‘hellish’ workplace is surely actionable, plaintiff’s evidence need not show a descent into the inferno,” it said.

“The issue is whether the discriminatory conduct Gates testified to qualifies as sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of his work environment,” the ruling said.

The district’s analysis is flawed “because it overlooked the fact that in most of the cases it cited rejecting hostile work environment claims, a co-worker as opposed to a supervisor uttered the racially offensive language. This distinction is critical in general, and in this case,” the ruling said.

“We have repeatedly treated a supervisor’s use of racially toxic language in the workplace as much more serious than a co-worker’s…This is particularly true when supervisors address these derogatory and humiliating remarks directly to the employees in question.”

“In short, when the harassment involves such appalling racist language in comments made directly to employees by their supervisors, we have not affirmed summary judgment for employers,” said the ruling, in reinstating Mr. Gates’ hostile work environment claim and remanding the case for further proceedings.

Attorneys in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.

A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling in 2017 and reinstated a hostile work environment case filed by a gay black former fire safety director, stating the lower court failed to consider relevant evidence.




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