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Noose incident directed at one coworker could be threat to all African-Americans at work

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Denying summary judgment on an African-American employee’s race-based hostile work environment claims under Title VII and state law, a federal district court in California left it to a jury to decide whether a Caucasian worker’s placing a noose on another African-American worker’s backpack and tossing a Jet magazine toward the same individual created a hostile work environment for the employee, who witnessed only the noose incident. There was also a triable question on the reasonableness of the employer’s response because, even though it promptly suspended the Caucasian worker, it then positioned him right next to the employee when he returned (Washington v. Recology San Francisco, December 22, 2015, Alsup, W.).

Noose incident. The employee worked for a waste-management company, removing materials from sorting lines and sending them down chutes. In December 2013, he saw a Caucasian coworker place a noose on the backpack of an African-American coworker, and tighten the noose “as if he was putting it on someone’s neck.” He reported the incident and the employer quickly suspended the Caucasian coworker without pay. The employer also investigated and learned that there had been no prior problems of a similar nature.

Placed next to harasser. When the Caucasian coworker returned, he was put on the line next to the employee, who felt uncomfortable and asked to move. His request was denied and he soon had trouble falling asleep and felt depressed. On January 3, the employee learned that the same Caucasian worker had removed a copy of Jet magazine from the sorting line and tossed it near the African-American coworker. The Caucasian worker was again suspended and no further incidents were reported. Thereafter the employee was out for a workplace injury and, when he returned, was allowed to work in a different area that the Caucasian worker.

Noose could threaten all African-Americans at work. Denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the employee’s racial harassment claims under Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the court first noted that “the noose is one of the most vile symbols in American history, and it recalls atrocious acts of violence” against African-Americans. While it was true that the Caucasian coworker did not display the noose in a manner specifically directed at the employee, the employee saw him place the noose on another African-American employee’s backpack, tighten it, and walk away laughing.

In the court’s view, a jury could find that by directing the noose at a specific individual, the coworker “communicated a threat of violence to all African Americans in the workplace, including our plaintiff. Such a threat of violence, particularly in light of the fact that [he] resumed racially insensitive conduct immediately after returning to work (albeit out of plaintiff’s presence) and the fact that [he] worked immediately next to our plaintiff upon his return, could have unreasonably interfered with a reasonable African American man’s work performance.”

Employer may have exacerbated hostility. The employer argued that, even if the jury found that a hostile work environment existed, it could not be liable because it responded appropriately by taking prompt action to discipline the alleged harasser and remedy the situation. Unconvinced, the court explained that while the response may have ultimately been effective, a jury could also find that by placing the alleged harasser directly adjacent to the employee on the sorting line just a week after the noose incident, the employer exacerbated the hostility that the Caucasian coworker had injected into the workplace. A jury would have to decide if his immediate proximity to the employee after the noose incident, combined with the Jet incident, rendered the work environment hostile to a reasonable African American.