August 5, 2021

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NJ Supreme Court Rules on Hostile Work Claims

On June 16, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court reminded employers that isolated but highly abusive comments from a manager – alone – could be enough to sustain a hostile environmental lawsuit under New Jersey Discrimination Act.

in the Armando Rios, Jr. v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. (A-23-20) (084746), Mr. Rios – a Hispanic employee – alleged that his manager made two racially motivated slurs against him. A comment came when Rios expressed interest in buying a new home. According to Rios, his manager quipped, “It must be hard for an SP to get FHA loans.” A month later, Rios claimed his manager commented on an actress auditioning for a company commercial they were cast for , an acceptable choice would be “if she wasn’t too late… The manager denied making both comments and there were no witnesses for both comments.

Analyze the alleged comments “from the perspective of a reasonable Hispanic employee in” [plaintiff’s] Position ”and after examining all the circumstances as required by permanent law, the Court found“ that a rational fact finder could reasonably have found that. . . at which the alleged insults are directed [Rios] were severe enough to create a hostile work environment. ”Three key considerations contributed to the court’s finding: (i) the two alleged comments were“ very insulting and degrading insults ”, (ii) the superior’s elevated position“ added severity alleged remarks ”and (iii) Rios reported his manager’s comments to the company’s human resources department, but the staff representative was“ disapproving ”.

Prior to this ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that a single, highly insulting, racial slur may be enough to create a hostile work environment, especially if the statement was made by a senior manager in front of other senior managers and coworkers. See e.g. Taylor v. Butcher, 152 NJ 490 (1998). In contrast, Rios’ supervisor was not a senior executive and there was no evidence on file to support the supervisor’s alleged hostility. However, the Court found that its previous decisions were not intended to set out a set of minimal facts necessary to maintain a sufficiently hostile work environment.

This attitude reminds employers that racial designations of any kind cannot be tolerated in the workplace. In a broader sense, the opinion reaffirms the need for thorough and effective action and training to combat discrimination and harassment. Such training is important not only for managers and supervisors, but for all employees, regardless of their level. Supervisors and managers play a vital role as the company’s “eyes and ears” in combating and preventing harassment in the workplace, but any employee who exercises oversight over another may also act as a supervisor under the analytical framework of the Supreme Court for Hostile Work Environment Claims be considered. HR professionals need to remain vigilant and ready to investigate and respond to employee complaints promptly and appropriately in order to reduce the exposure of employers to such costly and time-consuming litigation.

© 2021 Greenberg Sad, LLP. All rights reserved. National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 173