Fifth Circuit Finds Specific Allegation of One-Time Use of Racial Slur Sufficient to Preclude Dismissal Under Rule 12(b)(6)

On March 24, 2022, the U.S. Court docket of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court docket’s Federal Rule of Civil Process 12(b)(6) dismissal for failure to state a declare on a professional se plaintiff’s hostile work atmosphere declare in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, holding that the plaintiff’s particular allegation—that his supervisor, within the presence of different staff, known as him a derogatory racial epithet—was adequate to give rise to a viable declare. Whereas the authorized threshold for avoiding dismissal beneath Rule 12(b)(6) is considerably decrease than that which is relevant to motions for abstract judgment, the court docket’s resolution in Woods v. Cantrell marks a major departure from what appeared to be well-established legislation—particularly, {that a} “single utterance of a racial epithet, despicable as it is, cannot support a hostile work environment claim.”


Anthony Woods, who’s Black, labored for the French Market, first as a laborer after which as a painter, beneath the supervision of N’Gai Smith, who’s of Hispanic descent. The French Market terminated Woods’s employment following a bodily altercation with an appearing supervisor, whom Woods mistakenly believed was making an attempt to assault him with a screwdriver. Woods’s discrimination claims in his subsequent lawsuit in opposition to the French Market have been convoluted and multifarious, in that he claimed violations of not less than twenty-one legal guidelines and named a number of particular person defendants as well as to the French Market. Consequently, the district court docket’s order granting the defendants’ movement to dismiss beneath Rule 12(b)(6) totaled some forty-four pages.

Relative to Woods’s race-based hostile work atmosphere declare, the district court docket agreed with the protection that the one allegation superior by Woods that was particular to alleged racial harassment was that Smith had as soon as known as Woods lazy—a pejorative that he strengthened with a degrading descriptive and extremely offensive racial epithet—within the presence of Woods’s coworkers. Whereas acknowledging this allegation was particular and nonconclusory, the district court docket relied upon ample case legislation from the Fifth Circuit supporting the conclusion {that a} single incident or offensive comment by a supervisor was legally inadequate to help a hostile work atmosphere declare. The district court docket dismissed this declare, together with all others.

The Fifth Circuit’s Evaluation

Regardless of the “extensive[ness]” of Woods’s pleadings, the Fifth Circuit issued a quick, four-page opinion, readily affirming the district court docket’s dismissal of all of Woods’ claims, apart from the hostile work atmosphere declare beneath Title VII . There, the district court docket erred, in accordance to the appellate court docket. Whereas “[i]t is true that … a single instance of a racial epithet does not, in itself, support a claim for hostile work environment,” the three-judge Fifth Circuit appellate panel wrote, “‘a single incident of harassment, if sufficiently severe, [can] give rise to a viable Title VII claim’” beneath the totality of the circumstances take a look at.

The appellate court docket cited opinions from a number of different circuits—the First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and District of Columbia—which have acknowledged {that a} supervisor’s single use of a selected racial epithet is sufficiently extreme to state an actionable declare for a hostile work atmosphere. As famous in a 2013 concurring opinion by then-Choose Brett Kavanaugh, who on the time was a member of the U.S. Court docket of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, this explicit racial epithet is “a term that “sums up … all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America, [a] pure anathema to African-Americans, [and] probably the most offensive word in English.”

Key Takeaways

The Fifth Circuit’s resolution in Woods resulted within the remand of Woods’s Title VII hostile work atmosphere declare to the district court docket for additional proceedings. In response to the defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) movement to dismiss, Woods was not required set up a prima facie case of harassment, and courts are required to settle for well-pleaded allegations as true. Accordingly, because the case proceeds via discovery and, in the end, to a abstract judgment briefing, Woods will probably be required to put forth adequate proof beneath McDonnell Douglas to increase a real problem of materials truth adequate to preclude dismissal at that stage. Once more, authorized evaluation relevant to abstract judgment motions is extra rigorous than that utilized to dismissal beneath Rule 12(b)(6), so it stays to be seen whether or not the alleged, one-time use of the racial epithet will probably be sufficient to survive dismissal at that stage. Even nonetheless, the Fifth Circuit’s opinion may present adequate foundation upon which plaintiffs claiming use of racial epithets may survive abstract judgment.

The result of this resolution additionally serves as a reminder of how essential it could be for firms to (i) preserve anti-harassment insurance policies that present adequate avenues for his or her staff to report and complain about harassment, racial or in any other case; (ii) promptly examine any such reviews and complaints of harassment and treatment them as warranted; and (iii) prepare their staff on such insurance policies. Doing so could assist to stop these varieties of harassment lawsuits from being filed altogether, or, probably, lend help to motions to dismiss, however maybe much more importantly, present a factual and authorized foundation to transfer for abstract judgment.

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