Justices Consider Hearing a Case on ‘Most Offensive Word’

May 13, 2021by Jessica Gresko, Associated Press
In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, night falls on the Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case of a Black man who says he suffered discrimination because the N-word was carved into the wall of the hospital elevator where he worked. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Robert Collier says that during the seven years he worked as an operating room aide at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, white nurses called him and other Black employees “boy.” Management ignored two large swastikas painted on a storage room wall. And for six months, he regularly rode an elevator with the N-word carved into a wall.

Collier ultimately sued the hospital, but lower courts dismissed his case. Now, however, at a private conference Thursday, the Supreme Court will consider for the first time whether to hear his case. Focusing on the elevator graffiti, Collier is asking the justices to decide whether a single use of the N-word in the workplace can create a hostile work environment, giving an employee the ability to pursue a case under Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Already, the court’s two newest members, both appointed by President Donald Trump, are on record with seemingly different views. The case is also a test of whether the justices are willing to wade into the ongoing, complex conversations about race happening nationwide. The public could learn as soon as Monday whether the court will take Collier’s case.

Jennifer A. Holmes, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has urged the court to take the case, says she hopes the conversations taking place nationally will push the justices in that direction.

Doing so gives the court an “opportunity to show that they’re not insensitive to issues of race,” Holmes said. And courts are “all the time” confronting workplace discrimination claims involving use of the N-word, she said. The question for the justices, she said, is just whether someone who experiences an isolated instance of the N-word can “advance their case beyond the beginning stage.”

Two of the court’s nine justices have experience with similar cases. 

In 2019, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote an opinion for a panel of three judges who unanimously ruled against a Black man who sued over alleged discrimination and had his case dismissed at an early stage. Among other things, he claimed a former supervisor at the Illinois Department of Transportation called him the N-word.

“The n-word is an egregious racial epithet,” she wrote. But she said previous cases have made clear that an employee can’t win his case “simply by proving that the word was uttered.” He also must prove that “use of this word altered the conditions of his employment and created a hostile or abusive working environment.”

Barrett’s colleague, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has said he sees things differently.

In 2013, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Kavanaugh was a part of a three-judge panel including now-Attorney General Merrick Garland that sided with a Black former Fannie Mae employee who sued alleging racial discrimination. The judges ruled  that the man, who said he was called the N-word by a supervisor, shouldn’t have had his case dismissed at an early stage. 

Kavanaugh wrote separately about “probably the most offensive word in English.” His view, he said, is that the word’s use in the workplace by a supervisor “suffices by itself to establish a racially hostile work environment.”

The Supreme Court itself has yet to squarely address the issue. The justices have said that the “mere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet” doesn’t allow a person to sue under the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII. But in a 1998 case, the court suggested that a single, “extremely serious” incident could.

The hospital’s lawyers, for their part, have urged the court not to take Collier’s case. Parkland, the hospital where President John F. Kennedy was taken in 1963 after he was fatally shot, says the case’s “factual record … is neither strong nor clear.” And Collier himself previously said that the racial graffiti he saw “had no appreciable effect on his job performance.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, hospital spokesman Michael Malaise noted that there is no evidence “that any Parkland employee was responsible for the alleged graffiti or that it was directed specifically at Mr. Collier.” Over 70% of hospital staff members self-identify as minorities and the hospital’s “diversity is one of our strongest assets,” he said.

Collier was fired by the hospital in 2016 after a conflict with a supervisor. He brought his lawsuit after he was fired. His attorney, Georgetown law professor Brian Wolfman, declined an interview request on his client’s behalf. During a 2018 deposition, however, Collier talked about how seeing the elevator graffiti made him feel.

“I would say it was something I noticed and complained about,” Collier said. “And that every time I would have to catch that elevator by not seeing anything done about it … it was upsetting … Because I would have wanted to see it gone away pretty much instantly.”

In The News

Health

Voting

Supreme Court

Supreme Court Sides With Cursing Cheerleader Over Snapchat Post
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Sides With Cursing Cheerleader Over Snapchat Post
June 23, 2021
by Dan McCue

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment by punishing a student over a vulgar social-media rant sent away from school grounds. The vote was 8 to 1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting. The underlying case was filed on... Read More

Supreme Court Hands Win to Student Athletes
Sports
Supreme Court Hands Win to Student Athletes
June 22, 2021
by Dan McCue

In a unanimous decision Monday, the justices held the NCAA can’t enforce rules limiting education-related benefits — like computers and paid internships — that colleges offer to student athletes. The case doesn’t decide whether students can be paid salaries. Instead, the ruling will help determine whether... Read More

High Court Says Scores of Patent Judges Were Improperly Appointed
Supreme Court
High Court Says Scores of Patent Judges Were Improperly Appointed
June 22, 2021
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Congress erred when it set up a board to oversee patent disputes by failing to make the judges properly accountable to the president. As a result, it said, more than 200 administrative judges who preside over patent... Read More

Affordable Care Act Survives Its Toughest Challenge Before the High Court
Supreme Court
Affordable Care Act Survives Its Toughest Challenge Before the High Court
June 17, 2021
by Dan McCue

The Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, preserving insurance coverage for millions of Americans. By a 7-2 vote, the justices left the entire law intact and ruled that Texas and other Republican-led states (as well as two individual plaintiffs) have... Read More

Justices Defer Harvard Case on Race in College Admissions
Supreme Court
Justices Defer Harvard Case on Race in College Admissions

WASHINGTON (AP) — With abortion and guns already on the agenda, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court is considering adding a third blockbuster issue — whether to ban consideration of race in college admissions. The justices on Monday put off a decision about whether they will hear an... Read More

Justices Reject Johnson & Johnson Bid to Overturn $2B Talc Verdict
Supreme Court
Justices Reject Johnson & Johnson Bid to Overturn $2B Talc Verdict
June 10, 2021
by TWN Staff

The Supreme Court this week decided to leave in place a $2 billion verdict in favor of women who claim they developed ovarian cancer from using Johnson & Johnson talc products. As is their custom, the justices did not comment Tuesday on why they rejected Johnson & Johnson's... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top