‘N-Word’ Never OK at Work, Says NY Jury
A federal jury in Manhattan has found in favor of a black plaintiff who sued her black employer after he went on a rant filled with the n-word, finding that use of the slur is actionable harassment at work, no matter the context.
Brandi Johnson, a 38-year-old black employment agency worker, worked for Rob Carmona at an employment agency called STRIVE in East Harlem in New York City. The company helps people who struggle to enter the workforce because of criminal or other troubled backgrounds.
After Carmona, who is black, went on an n-word-laden rant directed at Johnson at work one day in March 2012, she cried in the bathroom for 45 minutes and then later sued him for harassment.
Carmona called Johnson the n-word eight times during a rant that included the following excerpts, according to NewsOne:You and [a previous employee] are just alike. Both of you are smart as s–, but dumb as s–. Both of you, you know what it is . . . both of you are n–s, y’all act like n–s all the time. And I’m not saying the term n– as derogatory; sometimes it’s good to know when to act like a n–, but y’all act like n–s all the time . . . both of you very bright, but both y’all act like n–s at inappropriate times.
“I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected,” Johnson reportedly testified at trial. “I was embarrassed.”
Carmona argued at trial that use of the n-word among blacks was culturally accepted and often indicated affection or love for each other. He said that’s what he meant when he called Johnson the n-word.
But the jury flatly rejected that argument, awarding Johnson $250,000 in damages and compensation and another $30,000 in punitive damages — $25,000 from Carmona and $5,000 from STRIVE, according to CNN.
STRIVE indicated that it may appeal the verdict and that it has already made plans to provide staff with training in diversity, discrimination, and anti-harassment.
No Precedent – Yet
Harassment is normally a very fact-specific claim, meaning that whether a defendant employer is guilty of it will depend on the specific things it did; there are few bright-line rules. It’s possible that another jury could agree with an employer like Carmona.
A New York lawyer who is representing a plaintiff in a similar case against the designer Oscar De La Renta says that while that’s true, he doesn’t know of any other cases involving the n-word in an employment context that have gone the defendant’s way.
The federal Manhattan jury’s verdict won’t necessarily influence other cases. “There really is no precedential value in a jury verdict,” says Michael Borrelli of the Law Office of Borrelli & Associates, in Great Neck, N.Y. “To the extent that there is a judicial opinion that makes a specific holding, that is how precedent is set.”
Borrelli says he expects the case to settle between now and any appeal. In his client’s case, filed in Queens County, the defense claims the n-word was used as a term of affection.