The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, rejecting a lower court’s application of a “hellish” threshold for establishing racial harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, ruled recently that a supervisor’s use of the “N-word” towards a subordinate on more than one occasion constituted unlawful racial harassment.

In Gates v. Board of Education for the City of Chicago, the appeals court concluded that the trial court had improperly required the plaintiff to show that the alleged harassing conduct had to be “hellish” to be unlawful under Title VII, a standard that the Seventh Circuit had actually abandoned many years ago. The appeals court thus reinstated the plaintiff’s complaint and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

The Gates ruling serves as a reminder that using racially offensive language, in particular by a supervisor to a subordinate, can constitute unlawful racial harassment under Title VII, and that managers and supervisors need to understand that the use of offensive language against an employee based on any protected characteristic is likely to get the employer into trouble.

A copy of the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Gates is available online.

Members of the Center for Workplace Compliance (CWC) can read more here.