The justices did not issue an explanation as to why they did not take up the case.
The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal filed by Texas surgical aide Robert Collier, who said his exposure to racial discrimination and “N-word” graffiti created a hostile work environment.
According to NBC News, Collier’s claims “divided the nation’s federal courts.” While some judges found that use of the N-word is so serious that a single use is grounds for a discrimination claim, others said that it may be construed as little more than a “mere utterance.”
Collier’s lawsuit, says NBC, was filed after he was fired from Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Collier claims that, over the course of his employment with Parkland, he and other Black employees suffered mistreatment.
In one incident, Collier says that he found the N-word scratched into the wall of an elevator that he and other workers use to reach the hospital cafeteria.
In his complaint, Collier alleges that he reported the incident to hospital management, who took no immediate action. Eventually, the suit says, the word was “roughly scratched out.”
However, a federal judge eventually scrapped Collier’s case, saying that no reasonable jury would believe that a single instance of graffiti constitutes racial discrimination—especially because the message was not directed at Collier individually. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals later reaffirmed the same ruling.
When Collier’s suit reached the Supreme Court, Parkland Memorial attorneys argued that an employer only violates federal civil rights law, as it pertains to racial discrimination, when a workplace is so pervaded by race-based discrimination that the ordinary conditions of employment are altered.
Parkland further alleged that Collier was unable to substantiate his claim that the graffiti either interfered with his job or created a hostile work environment.
Interestingly—and in spite of the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Collier’s case—two sitting justices have issued vastly different rulings in related cases.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, for instance, was part of a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel that ruled unanimously against a Black man who had sued over alleged discrimination. In her opinion, Barrett said that the “n-word is an egregious racial epithet,” but that an employee cannot prove discrimination by “simply proving the word was uttered.”
In contrast, Justice Brett Kavanaugh—who, like Barrett, is a Trump appointee—found that another Black man’s case had been prematurely dismissed. In that lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that he had been called the N-word by a supervisor.
In his opinion, Kavanaugh concluded that the N-word is “probably the most offensive word in English,” and that its use within the workplace “suffices by itself to establish a racially hostile workplace.”
Despite the contrasting views on the bench, the Supreme Court did not explain why it refused to hear Collier’s appeal—most likely because Collier’s exposure to the slur was through writing and, as Parkland’s attorneys claimed, not specifically directed towards him.
Collier, for his part, said during a 2018 deposition that simply seeing the slur remain in place for so long emotionally impacted him.
“I would say it was something I noticed and complained about,” Collier said. “And that every time I would have to catch that elevator by not seeing anything done about it […] it was upsetting […] Because I would have wanted to see it gone away pretty much instantly.”