A Capehart Scatchard Blog

NJ Supreme Court Holds That Supervisor’s Two Uses of Offensive Slurs are Sufficient Support Hostile Work Environment Claim

By on June 24, 2021 in Labor & Employment with 0 Comments

By: Kristen M. Doyle, Law Clerk
Editor: Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq.

In a case decided on June 16, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in Armando Rios Jr. v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. that a supervisor’s use of two offensive slurs was severe and pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment claim for a jury to decide under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).

The facts on the summary judgment record established that defendant Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. (“Meda”) hired Rios, a Hispanic male, in May 2015 as the company’s Director of Brand Marketing. Rios alleged that one month after he began working at Meda, his direct supervisor stated in regard to Rios’ wife looking for a new home that “it must be hard for a sp– to have to get FHA loans.”

Several weeks later, Rios asserted that his supervisor repeated the slur while the two were casting actresses for a television commercial, allegedly stating that the actress “would work” for the commercial “if she didn’t look too Sp–ky.” The supervisor denied making both of the statements.

Rios stated that he followed Meda’s Equal Employment Opportunity Policy and Complaint Procedure by meeting with Meda’s Director of Human Resources after each incident in order to orally report the comments.  Rios alleged that the Director of Human Resources was dismissive and did not take notes. Rios stated that he did not file a written complaint in fear of retaliation.

The company placed Rios on probation in February of 2016 for poor performance and eventually terminated him on June 1, 2016. Rios filed a complaint on March 31, 2017, alleging, among other claims, that Meda violated the NJLAD by creating a hostile work environment.

The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that no rational factfinder could conclude that the alleged comments were severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification.

The Court reversed and remanded the case for trial, holding that when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, that a rational jury could conclude that the demeaning and contemptuous slurs uttered by a direct supervisor were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. The Court also heavily considered the assertions made by the employee that he reported the incident to his employer and the employer took no action. As a result, the Court denied summary judgment to the employer. This decision marks a shift in the application of the severe and pervasive standard in relation to establishing a hostile work environment under the NJLAD, significantly broadening the scope of past interpretations.

The Court determined that to evaluate a hostile work environment claim, the remarks must be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable Hispanic person in the plaintiff’s position. The Court then held that based upon the highly offensive and demeaning slurs spoken in a workplace setting by a direct supervisor, the derogatory comments present sufficient evidence of severity to create a genuine issue of material fact.


Tags: , , , , ,

About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.