By Chance Hill
A defendant-employer won summary judgment on a racially hostile environment claim. The district court reached back to old cases and said the employee-plaintiff had to show the work environment was “hellish” to be actionable. On February 20, 2019, the Seventh Circuit disagreed.
The Seventh Circuit rejected the “hellish” standard, stating that a plaintiff’s evidence need not amount to the equivalent of the Ninth Ring or a descent into the Inferno. It also underscored that the district court’s analysis was flawed because it overlooked the difference between a co-worker uttering racially offensive remarks as opposed to a supervisor’s use of such toxic language—the latter of which is much more serious, according to the appellate court. The Seventh Circuit added that this concern is magnified when supervisors make derogatory and humiliating comments directly to the employee in question, compared to situations in which the employee may hear offensive comments secondhand.
The literary lessons here are twofold: (1) Dante’s Inferno did not set the bar for impermissible harassment, and (2) Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” applies with great force to workplace harassment—toxic language coming from a co-worker is bad, but toxic language from a supervisor is terminal.