Boeing Faces Racial Harassment Lawsuit
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UPDATED: Sep 12, 2019
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Racial harassment should be a relic of the past, but some employees continue to endure hostile work environments because of their race. Harassment persists, in part, because federal courts have been reluctant to give teeth to federal laws that are meant to protect employees from discrimination.
A recent lawsuit against Boeing accuses the company of failing to address instances of racial harassment that included leaving a noose on a black employee’s desk and urinating in his workspace. The employee is not alone in alleging that a large employer failed to provide a workplace that was free from shocking displays of racial harassment.
Racial Harassment and Retaliation Claims
Curtis Anthony works as a quality inspector in Boeing’s North Charleston, S.C. plant. His lawsuit alleges a pattern of racial harassment among co-workers that included racial slurs and other degrading conduct.
Anthony’s lawsuit states that he complained to Boeing management about the harassment. Anthony alleges that Boeing retaliated against him for making that complaint by moving his workspace to a building that had no air conditioning. Boeing denies that it received any complaints prior to March 2019.
Courts have sometimes held that transferring a victim rather than disciplining the culpable co-employees is an inappropriate response to harassment. A transfer sends the message that the victim is the problem and that employees who harass others because of their race will suffer no consequences. Unfortunately, courts have been far from consistent in their willingness to second-guess decisions made by employers.
Anthony took medical leaves as a result of the harassment. When he returned from leave, he was passed over for promotions. Anthony contends that less qualified white employees were promoted and that the decision not to promote him was retaliatory and discriminatory.
In March 2019, after returning to South Carolina from a different job site, Anthony found a noose on his desk. Boeing agrees that Anthony complained about the noose, which — in light of South Carolina’s history of lynching — can only be interpreted as threat of violence against an African-American employee.
Boeing alleges that it investigated Anthony’s complaint and that it fired the responsible employee. Whether only a single employee was involved, given Anthony’s allegation that multiple employees targeted him with racially abusive language, is unclear.
In its initial public response to the incident, Boeing did not disclose that it was investigating a noose, but stated only that a “racially-charged symbol” was found in its plant. That tepid description of a symbol of lynching suggests an intent to downplay a serious problem for the sake of public relations.
The Big Picture
Boeing is not the only company at which African American employees have been threatened with nooses. For more than a year at a GM plant in Toledo, black employees were subjected to racial slurs and derogatory comments, to “white only” signs on bathroom doors, and to workers wearing Nazi symbols.
The workers filed a lawsuit after nooses appeared at work. They alleged that they had complained to their supervisors (all of whom were white) about the hostile work environment, but were essentially told that they were lucky to have jobs and should just deal with it.
A recent lawsuit filed by 19 UPS workers in Ohio alleged that co-workers hung nooses over the desk of an African American worker and then posted pictures of the nooses on Facebook. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission obtained a $140,000 judgment against AA Foundries, a San Antonio business, for acts of racial harassment that included the display of a noose in the workplace.
Employer Responsibility for Racial Harassment
While federal law prohibits racial harassment in the workplace, federal courts have crafted rules to protect businesses from all but the worst instances of harassment. Claiming that federal courts cannot police “civility” in the workplace, courts will only find an employer liable if the harassment was so severe or pervasive that it created an oppressive, hostile, intimidating, or abusive working environment. Courts allow businesses to tolerate an astonishing amount of harassment before the workplace will be deemed hostile.
Courts expect employees to put up with a significant amount of harassment. Courts deem “stray remarks” (even if the remark includes the n-word or other racial slurs) and “isolated conduct” to be unworthy of a remedy unless the conduct is particularly severe. A physical assault might meet the test of severity in the eyes of some judges, but even months of periodic acts of harassment will be viewed as “uncivil,” but not actionable harassment, by many federal judges.
When federal courts draw a line between conduct that is “mildly offensive” and “deeply offensive,” they usually draw it in a place that favors employers. Those decisions are often criticized by observers who feel that civil rights laws should protect civil rights, not employers. Even the most business-friendly judge, however, should agree that placing a noose on a black employee’s desk creates a hostile work environment.
Disputed Issues in Anthony’s Lawsuit
Federal courts have also excused employers from liability when the harassing acts are not committed by managers or immediate supervisors, provided that the company has prohibited harassment, has created a means for employees to report harassment, and has taken meaningful steps to end reported harassment. Businesses are usually shielded from liability when employees fail to report harassment by co-workers unless management was made aware of it in some other way.
The outcome of lawsuits sometimes hinges on disputed facts. Curtis Anthony alleges that he reported harassment and suffered retaliation in the form of a forced relocation to a less desirable job site. Boeing claims he did not report harassment. How a judge or jury resolves those disputed facts may determine Boeing’s liability for the alleged harassment.
There seems to be no dispute that co-workers placed a noose on Anthony’s desk. Boeing claims that this was the only incident that was reported to management and that it was resolved by firing the responsible employee. Anthony claims that harassment was pervasive and that Boeing knew it involved multiple employees over an extended time. Simply firing one employee may not have been an effective or timely response. A judge or jury will need to resolve those disputes to determine whether Anthony is entitled to compensation for racial harassment.