It has been more than twenty years since New Jersey’s courts confirmed that a single derogatory racial comment directed against a subordinate employee by a supervisor can create a hostile work environment in violation of the Law Against Discrimination. Despite this landmark decision, a Hispanic male employee who was subjected to use of an ugly racial term found his hostile work environment case dismissed by both a trial court and the Appellate Division. Last week the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion that overturned those decisions, reiterating that 20-year-old decision and holding that the evidence presented was sufficient enough to deserve a jury trial.

The case was filed by Armando Rios, a Hispanic male who was hired by Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. as the company’s Director of Brand Marketing. His director supervisor was Tina Cheng-Avery, who Rios claims used a racial epithet against him on two separate occasions shortly after he began working for the company. He claims that on both occasions he reported the incident to the Director of Human Resources and that no corrective action was taken. He was placed on probation by Cheng-Avery and fired within one year.

Rios filed a complaint against the company, Cheng-Avery and the Director of Human Resources, charging them with violating the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by creating a hostile work environment and pointing to the two comments as “examples of the ongoing and severe daily harassment and … national origin discrimination perpetuated by” his supervisor.

Though the lower court and the Appellate Division ruled that no rational factfinder could conclude that the reported comments directed at Mr. Rios were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and remanded the decision, noting that the courts had a responsibility to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. In their decision they pointed to several legal points, including that the perspective taken should be that of a reasonable Hispanic employee in Rios’ position; that the reported comments would not have been made if not for Rios’ ethnicity; that racial epithets contribute to the sense of a remark’s severity; that the impact of racial comments is exacerbated when they are made by a supervisor;; and that though the reported remarks were counter to the company’s written policy, the company had done nothing to remedy the situation when provided the opportunity to do so.

The court’s decision both reiterates the importance of the long-ago decision regarding derogatory racial comments and allows Mr. Rios to take his case to a jury to determine whether it merits the remedies that he is seeking. If you are subjected to racial comments in the workplace or any other discriminatory actions, we can help. Contact us today to learn about your rights and the options available to you.