Monday, October 19, 2020

Judge Amy Coney Barrett and the Case of the Last-Minute N-Word

 Back to some Judge Amy Coney Barrett employment law. Today's episode features Smith v. Illinois Dept. of Transportation. This was a hostile work environment and retaliation case, with a twist at the end. 

The employee alleged that he was told to "shut the f[] up," called a "stupid dumb motherf[]," and one guy threatened to "kick [his] ass" (f-words quoted as they appear in the opinion - you know I'd ordinarily let 'em fly in quotations). Does that create a hostile work environment claim? No. Why? No signs of discriminatory intent - hostile work environment claims arise under the discrimination statutes, so just being hostile is not enough. 

What about his retaliation claims? Well, the problem there was that he had a long, documented history of performance issues that were unrelated to any of his protected activity:

He received multiple ratings of “unsatisfactory” in two different formal performance reviews. His failings as an employee were chronicled in conversations and emails from a number of different supervisors and coworkers, who considered him unsafe, argumentative, and unable to follow instructions.

So, no retaliation claim either. 

Are you ready for the twist? Near the end of his employment, a former supervisor allegedly called him a "stupid ass ni[]." Judge Barrett acknowledged that this particular racial epithet "falls on the more severe end of the spectrum." Ultimately, she still affirmed summary judgment for the employer. Why? 


  • "He introduced no evidence that Colbert’s use of the n-word changed his subjective experience of the workplace." Instead, "his supervisors made him miserable throughout his employment," but for reasons unrelated to race, and there was no evidence that this last epithet subjectively made things worse.
  • And, his employment was already over. "The Department had initiated termination proceedings against Smith two weeks before, so he knew that he was about to be fired. And while things certainly could have gotten worse for Smith after the racially charged confrontation with Colbert, he offers no evidence that they did."
I've already seen some criticism of this decision. Although it was a panel decision affirming the district court (i.e. the four judges who looked at it all reached the same conclusion), I could also see a different panel coming out the other way. One could also contrast this opinion and then-Judge Kavanaugh's dicta on whether one n-word is enough to create a hostile work environment (that said, the facts on which Judge Barrett based her conclusion were not present in Judge Kavanaugh's case). 

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