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Federal Court Focuses on Intent Behind Racial Slurs


In a very recent decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal district court was ridiculed for its handling of a racial harassment case involving the N-word and references to lynching. Instead of focusing on the "polluting effect on the workplace environment," the federal district court focused on the intent of the supervisors and workers in making those racially offensive comments.

The decision in Lounds v. Lincare, Inc.

Shawron Lounds was employed with Lincare, Inc., an in-home medical provider, as a customer service representative. Out of 20 customer service reps at the Wichita location, she was the only African-American. During her employment, she alleges she was told to "get ghetto" with a threatening customer. A male coworker made the comment that "we need to bring back lynching, because we have enough trees." In a staff meeting, the manager announced that a company VP was coming and employees should address him by saying "Yes Massa."

The trial court's focus on intent

The federal district court dismissed the case on summary judgment, after improperly considering whether the employees who used racial slurs intended to be offensive or cause harm, instead of whether a jury could find that both the subjective and objective effect was to pollute the environment with racially humiliating, offensive, or insulting conduct. The Tenth Circuit reversed the decision and sent the case to a jury. The appellate court found that the district court was in error for discounting the environmental effect of the racially offensive comments and instead focusing on motivation.

The worst facts in the case were essentially disregarded

The two most significant examples of the court's error can be seen with the repeated use of the N-word or similar slurs, which the court found to be a "powerfully charged racial term," and the references to lynching which the court found easily invoked "the mental image of a noose, a 'potent and threatening symbol for African-Americans.'" With these facts, the question is not whether the person making the comments intended to be offensive. The issue is whether the comments themselves contributed to a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII. More importantly, the lower court was required to view all of the facts in the case in a light most favorable to the employee, which it did not do in that case.

Harassment is prohibited under federal law

It is unlawful to harass someone because of their race, which includes using racial slurs, making offensive or derogatory remarks regarding race, displaying racially-offensive symbols, such as swastikas or nooses. Harassment must be so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment. Therefore, teasing or offhand comments that are isolated events are not sufficient to establish a hostile work environment. Harassment can also be actionable if it leads to an adverse employment action such as termination or demotion.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or harassment, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment attorneys at Michel | King , either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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