The N-word when used by whites is recognized rightly as the most demeaning and hateful of racial epithets. But what about when it is used by a black supervisor and directed at a black employee? A New York jury awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages in a hostile work environment case to Brandi Johnson, who was subjected to what her lawyer characterized as a "four minute nigger tirade" by her boss, who was also black. The jury rejected the argument that use of the N-word in this context constituted a term of love and endearment.
This case is unusual in at least a couple of respects. First, at least as far as the story about the case tells, it was centered on a single incident, a severe and degrading incident to be sure. Second, a unique defense was offered: essentially that the supervisor was also black and therefore could not or would not have intended harm. Obviously, the jury did not believe or credit this explanation. A more typical hostile work environment case based on race would be that involved in the case EEOC v. Central Wholesalers for which, as discussed in an earlier post, Racial Harassment and Hostile Work Environment, the Court summarized the proof:
Three of Medley's [Medley was the complaining employee] co-workers in [her department] used the word n****r, and at least one of them used in 'pretty much everyday.' Moreover, during [an incident on November 10], DaBay (a co-worker) called Medley a black stupid n****r, a black n****r, and a black, stupid b****h, among other derogatory terms. In addition, two of her co-worker's kept blue-colored mop-head dolls in their offices which they had hanging by nooses tied around the dolls' necks. As in past cases, we cannot ignore the habitual use of epithets here or view the conduct without an eye for its cumulative effect.
The other thing is that the amount of damages awarded -- $250,000 -- cannot be used as a benchmark or reference point applicable to other cases. Those types of issues elude generalization and are very much dependent on case-specific context and facts.
Lexington, Kentucky discrimination lawyer Robert Abell represents individuals and employees in discrimination cases; contact him at 859-254-7076.