NJ State Supreme Court Holds that Derogatory Language Created a Hostile Work Environment

Employees who find themselves in the uncomfortable and deflating position of being subjected to offensive discriminatory comments have two options — they can stay silent or they can choose to take action. When Armando Rios, Jr. was subjected to racially derogatory language from his direct supervisor, he chose the latter. He reported what had happened to Human Resources, and when they failed to take action and eventually allowed Rios to be fired, he exercised his legal rights and filed suit against the company. After a series of hearings and decisions, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking decision asserting that the use of a supervisor’s offensive racial slurs created a hostile work environment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The specifics of Mr. Rios’ case should serve as a roadmap for victimized employees and as a cautionary tale for New Jersey employers. He began working for his employer, Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. in May of 2015 and almost immediately after was twice subjected to use of the term “spick” by Tina Cheng-Avery, his direct supervisor. When he reported the offensive remarks to the company’s Director of Human Resources as required by company policy, Ms. Cheng-Avery denied her own actions and no corrective actions were taken. The HR Director’s response was described as having been “dismissive.” A short time later Ms. Cheng-Avery placed Mr. Rios on probation for what she described as “poor performance” and terminated him a few months later. At that point he filed a complaint under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, accusing the company of creating a hostile work environment.

When the case was first filed, Meda Pharmaceutical filed a motion for summary judgment and the trial court granted their petition. They based their decision on their belief that no rational factfinder would conclude that Cheng-Avery’s alleged comments rose to the level of being severe or pervasive enough to have created a hostile work environment. Intent on getting justice, Mr. Rios appealed that decision and the Appellate Division allowed the case to move on to the Supreme Court, which took an entirely different view of what had happened.

In its decision, the Court pointed to several specific aspects of the case that were noteworthy. The first pertained to the lower court’s decision to allow the case to be dismissed. They reminded the lower court that in a motion for summary judgment there is a requirement to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, which was Mr. Rios. They wrote that because Rios is Hispanic it is important to consider the impact of slurs that were directly associated with his protected group, and that the comments would have been particularly damaging when spoken by his direct supervisor, whose role is to “prevent, not create, a hostile atmosphere.”  They then went on to review the required elements of a hostile work environment, especially with reference to the fact that the specific comments would not have occurred if not for Mr. Rios’ race.

Finally, the justices of the Supreme Court noted that the company failed to take action when Mr. Rios gave them an opportunity to remedy the situation, it gave him reason to believe that the comments “portray[ed] an attitude of prejudice that inject[ed] hostility and abuse into the working environment and significantly alter[ed] the conditions of [his] employment.” The case was sent back to be heard by a jury.

If you are working in an environment where you’re subjected to derogatory, offensive comments, it is easy to feel powerless, but New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination is on your side. For information about your rights, contact our employment discrimination law firm today to set up a time to discuss your situation.

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