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In Workplace Claims Against Many Supervisors, Focus on Individuals

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on February 06, 2014 2:56 PM

A jury will determine whether five African American prison guards endured a hostile work environment, an Eighth Circuit panel ruled.

The appeals court ruled that the lower court erroneously granted summary judgment to all of the defendants. The appeals panel affirmed most of the dismissals, but reinstated claims against three of the supervisors, demonstrating how crucial it is to differentiate between supervisors.

The takeaway: even in employment settings conducive to mob mentalities (such as prisons and law enforcement), always present evidence of individual acts of discriminatory behavior.

Hostile Work Environment: Racially Charged Jokes

Alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the five guards -- Aaron Delaney, Jaryl Ellis, Michael Hunter, Tiffany Johnson and Paul Zeiger -- said they experienced demoralizing racial taunts and jokes which were permitted and joined in by their supervisors.

The guards accused Sgt. Chad Miles of making insulting racial remarks and failing to prevent others from making similar comments. During roll call, the black officers were regularly called "the gang," the "home boys," or "the back of the bus." The lawsuit said the comments directed at the black guards also included, "If the lights went out all you would see is white teeth," "The 'hood has arrived" and "Smells like fried chicken."

When Miles heard black guards express that "enough was enough," he would just grin. There was evidence that the officers experienced anxiety, dread, and panic attacks.

Because of these facts were prevalent primarily with Miles, the three-member panel determined it was inappropriate for the lower court to grant Miles' motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs' claim of harassment. While the lower court's dismissal of harassment claims against all others was affirmed, the panel determined the case revealed acts, comments and inaction by Miles that was sufficient to make out a prima facie case of harassment.

Retaliation: More Work, Dirty Jobs

The guards alleged that supervisors retaliated against them for reporting the conduct by "increasing workloads and assigning them undesirable jobs."

But the panel determined a jury should consider only Ellis' retaliation claims against Sgt. Chad Haney and Sgt. Kevin Stoner. The appeals court agreed with the lower court that the other guards provided insufficient evidence of retaliation.

"A reasonable prison supervisor would have understood that permitting and participating in racially derisive remarks and assigning inferior work assignments would violate the black officers' rights," Judge Michael E. Gans wrote on behalf of the Eighth Circuit.

The case is a good reminder that employment settings with a strong sense of singular identity still have distinct defendants. To clear the evidentiary hurdle, evidence of discrimination should be presented in a manner that shows supervisors' behavior as individuals, not just as a racist mob.

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