A recent $1.58 million verdict in favor of the plaintiff in a California racial harassment lawsuit (Birden v. The Regents of the University of California No. BC6681389 (Los Angeles Superior Court, filed on May 30, 2017) shows why employers must take steps to foster a harassment-free workplace.
The plaintiff in the case alleged frequent negative and offensive remarks about her race by coworkers, as well as an unjustified termination. Madeleine Pauker "Former UCLA worker wins $1.58 million judgment" www.smdp.com (Aug. 09, 2019).
Commentary and Checklist
The plaintiff's success in the Birden case demonstrates how a hostile work environment claim can result in a significant damage award.
This risk is reflected in other recent appellate court rulings.
A ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Mack v. Town of Pinetop Lakeside, et al., No. 17-17105 (U.S. Ct. App., 9th Cir. July 2, 2019) held that four racial slurs within a year made by a coworker against the plaintiff was sufficient to allow the plaintiff to proceed in front of a jury to prove a hostile work environment.
Similarly, in Gates v. Board of Education of Chicago, No. 17-3143 (U.S. Ct. App. 7th Cir. (Feb. 20, 2019), the Seventh Circuit held that a plaintiff does not need to demonstrate a "hellish" work experience to prove a hostile work environment, and that three racial slurs was enough to allow a jury to consider the case.
The above appellate court decisions have focused on the severity of the racial slurs, in addition to their frequency, to deny the employers' motions for summary judgment and to instead allow the cases to be presented to a jury for determination.
Managers must be trained to be actively observant in the workplace and to put a stop to an inappropriate comment the first time it is made or to a behavior that crosses a boundary in order to prevent hostile work environment claims.
Because managers and supervisors are typically the first to hear about or witness harassment, employers should provide their managerial staff with tools that will help them recognize and respond to harassing behavior. Effective training as to racial and other forms of harassment should be repeated often. Discuss harassment scenarios and effective responses to those situations. Training should emphasize the responsibility managers and supervisors have to reduce litigation risk and make the work environment a positive, respectful, and productive place.
Here are some suggestions that can help your managers foster a harassment-free workplace: