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This week the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals provided greater clarity as to what comments can establish a racially hostile work environment under Title VII. In Mahone v. CSX Transportation, Inc., Case No. 2:14-cv-00535-AKK (June 13, 2016), the Court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the employer finding that that a coworker’s use of the term “homeboy” was insufficient to establish a racially hostile work environment. On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that his Caucasian coworkers’ use of the word “homeboy” created a hostile work environment by characterizing him as a “black thug or black gangster.”
The Eleventh Circuit held that the Plaintiff failed to present substantial evidence that the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment. The Court explained that under a totality of circumstances, taking into account the frequency and severity of the comments, whether it was physically threatening or an offensive utterance and the impact on his job performance, the single use of a racially-charged word was not objectively severe and pervasive.
In our experience, hostile work environment cases are regularly based on isolated incidents or off-hand comments. Often when these isolated incidents or comments are race or sex based, they create a hook for district courts to deny summary judgment. However, through its decision in Mahone, the Eleventh Circuit has established more precedent upon which employers can rely to defeat a hostile work environment claim based on a single comment, even if that comment appears to be racially charged.