Courts Refuse to Allow San Francisco Mechanic to Pursue Title VII, FEHA Claims Over Noose Hung in the Workplace

The imagery of a hanging noose often carries with it strong connotations, particularly for African-Americans. Despite this image’s potency, a federal court decided that an African-American worker’s discovery of a noose hanging at his work site was not enough to allow the employee to proceed with a hostile work environment claim. Generally, successful hostile work environment claims require proof of “pervasive or severe” race discrimination, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that a single noose-hanging incident was neither pervasive nor sufficiently severe.mechanic

The employee, Jon Henry, had worked as an HVAC mechanic at the University of California at San Francisco since 2006. During his time there, Henry claimed that he experienced multiple instances of racial animus that created a hostile work environment. These included inappropriate racial comments, the use of racial epithets, and, in July 2012, the hanging of a noose in the workplace.

Henry eventually brought both Title VII and Fair Employment and Housing Act claims for race discrimination. The trial court ruled against him, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed in a decision issued in March. The courts decided that the incident underlying Henry’s case was too isolated to comprise a valid claim.

A key aspect of the case that led to the courts’ rulings was the incidents that were, and weren’t, considered by the courts. While Henry listed incidents of inappropriate racial statements, the use of “the n-word,” and the hanging of the noose in the inventory warehouse in various court documents he filed, he listed only the noose incident in his original Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. The law requires that an employee who believes they’ve suffered discrimination first “exhaust his or her administrative remedies.” This usually means, in federal cases, filing a complaint with the EEOC before proceeding to court. In a case brought in the California courts, that means first filing with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment. Since Henry brought up none of the incidents beyond the noose hanging in his EEOC complaint, the law limited him to just that one incident as he pursued his Title VII and FEHA claims in court.

With only the noose incident before it, the trial court decided that the act was “not severe or pervasive enough” to constitute a hostile work environment. Further hampering his case was Henry’s lack of evidence that the noose was hung with a racist intent or was directed at him personally, the Ninth Circuit stated. In most circumstances, a single, isolated incident won’t be considered severe enough to amount to a hostile work environment.

Henry’s attorney told law360.com that the hanging of a noose is so obviously racial and obviously extreme that it should have been enough, indicating that he would seek review by the entire Ninth Circuit. “Just as a matter of law, a noose in the workplace is severe, and that should be sufficient.” The court denied the request for rehearing, however, in a decision made last month.

If you believe you’ve suffered from a hostile work environment that violates the FEHA, you should contact capable counsel promptly. These cases often require the production of considerable evidence and the meeting of strict deadlines for filing. The experienced Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch can help you through the process. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

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Arbitration Clauses in Employment Contracts and Your California FEHA Violation Claim, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Feb. 29, 2016