Earlier this year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that use of the word “thug” and using a slogan from former President Donald Trump were insufficient to demonstrate a racially hostile work environment.
Kenneth Robinson and Christopher Hall, both Black, resigned from their jobs at Priority Automotive Honda dealership after their new boss, James Beckley, allegedly engaged in racially motivated actions toward them.
Robinson and Hall alleged that they experienced racial discrimination during Beckley’s first week as their new boss.
Shortly after Beckley began his job as the manager at the dealership, he implemented significant operational and structural changes, including moving sales managers to the front of the store into a “sales tower” and centralized sales operations. Robinson and Hall were both sales managers and decided not to move to the sales tower.
Not being in the sales tower made it more difficult for them to make sales and this impacted their pay.
According to the case, when Beckley started with the new company, he “gave a speech in which he told the sales staff that he wanted to ‘make Priority Honda great again.’” The employees alleged that “paraphrasing President Trump’s campaign slogan is racist and discriminatory toward minority employees.”
The employees also alleged that Beckley told another employee to “stop hanging around with those thugs,” when referencing a mixed-race group that included Robinson and Hall, and to “start hanging around sales managers.”
The employees also alleged that a non-management employee said to another to “come over to the white side,” but this was hotly disputed and she claimed to have said “right” side.
The plaintiffs alleged the reason they stopped receiving deals from sales associates was because they are Black.
On Beckley’s fifth day, the plaintiffs filed multiple racial discrimination internal complaints. Hall resigned. When Beckley met with Robinson to try to resolve the conflict, Beckley apologized for the comments. Beckley then changed Robinson’s pay plan, which Robinson rejected, and he left the company.
Robinson and Hall brought North Carolina state law claims and alleged federal claims to include violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, alleging a hostile work environment and disparate treatment.
The 4th Circuit upheld the dismissal of the federal claims on summary judgment.
Citing prior case law, the court noted that a “hostile work environment exists only when the workplace is so ‘permeated with ‘discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult,’ that it ‘would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive.’” The test is four-prong:
The employee must experience unwelcome harassment.
The harassment must be because of the employee’s race.
The harassment must be so “severe or pervasive” that it alters the conditions of their employment and creates an abusive atmosphere.
The harassment must be imputable to their employer.
The court held that a “reasonable person could not find — based on the record — that it occurred because Plaintiffs are Black.”
As to the term “thugs,” the court held that while the plaintiffs were subjectively offended, they must also show that a reasonable person would find the term race-based. The court held, “Some believe that ‘thugs’ is racially charged when directed at Black individuals. Yet ‘thugs’ is often used non-racially to express disapproval of group behavior. For example, the last three U.S. presidents have used the term to refer to non-Black people and mixed-race groups. Race is thus not always the reason a person uses thugs. And there is nothing in the record, beyond Plaintiffs’ unsupported belief, suggesting that their race was the reason here.”
The court added, “The comment was directed at a group — not at Plaintiffs in particular — that included non-Black employees. So whether or not it would violate someone’s subjective sensibilities or defy etiquette ideals, Beckley’s one-time use of ‘thugs’ fails to support an objective inference of racial harassment — never mind severe or pervasive racial harassment,” citing case law to conclude that the statement is not “discriminatory on its face.”
As for the statement attributable to that made by former President Donald Trump, the court held, “Likewise, there is nothing to suggest to a reasonable person that Beckley said he wanted to ‘make Priority Honda great again’ because Plaintiffs are Black. Paraphrasing this campaign slogan is not objectively racist. And Plaintiffs’ subjective discomfort — whether based on possible political preferences or on perceived animus — is not grounds for a federal racial discrimination claim.”
The court agreed that referring to the “white side” would be to a reasonable person race-based, but that statement alone did not create a severe or pervasive hostile work environment. The court added, “Even the ‘utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings in an employee’ is generally not severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.”
This case illustrates the complexity of legally actionable hostile work environment claims, but it should not give license to employers to tolerate race-based language or any slurs.
However, this case also illustrates that the court will rely only on terms that are truly immutable to a race, gender, national origin, etc.
Employers should create a safe, civil and respectful workplace and, where conflict like this arises, address it immediately.