Last month I wrote a post explaining that even when an employer has created a hostile work environment, that may not be enough for an employee to successfully obtain compensation. As I mentioned then, potential clients seeking our legal services for employment discrimination often are victims of hostile environments at work.
But the recent headline-grabbing case involving Paula Deen shows where the law can fall short in addressing a hostile environment. Lisa Jackson, a former employee of a business co-owned by Deen, sued the famed cook, “saying she was sexually harassed and worked in a hostile environment rife with innuendo and racial slurs,” as reported by Russ Bynum of the Associated Press. After Deen admitted to a host of offensive statements and behaviors in a deposition for the case, the Food Network canceled her contract.
But unfortunately for Ms. Jackson, the federal court where she filed the case dismissed a portion of her lawsuit–her claims based on racial slurs and other offensive race-based statements. Because Ms. Jackson is apparently white, “The judge agreed with lawyers for Deen … that Jackson has no standing to sue her former employers for what she claims was poor treatment of black workers, regardless of her claims that she was offended and placed under additional stress,” according to Mr. Hynum’s reporting.
Unlawful harassment is usually discussed in the context of sexual harassment, and that is where the legal protections agains such unwanted behavior began. In general, there is no specific law or rule that says an employer or co-worker can’t say offensive things in the workplace, even about sex. Rather, both federal and Oregon law prohibit discrimination because of an employee’s sex (and race). 42 USC § 2000e–2; ORS 659A.030.
In the years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which first banned sex-based discrimination nationwide, many women employees were able to successfully argue that they were subjected to offensive and degrading comments about sex that their male colleagues weren’t. Thus, a hostile environment was unlawful as long as the employee could prove that it was hostile based on the employee’s sex (or membership in another protected group).
The likely theory behind the dismissal of Ms. Jackson’s race-based claims was that even though what she experienced may have been offensive, and may have been based on race, it was not related to her race–and thus she couldn’t challenge it. It’s worth mentioning that the court upheld some of her other claims–including that she was subjected to sexual harassment–before the parties apparently reached a settlement and agreed to have the case dismissed.
Oregon law actually goes further than federal law by saying that an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or even the race or sex of someone an employee “associates” with. ORS 659A.030. But in any event, the details of the Paula Deen lawsuit are specific to that case, and whether you are experiencing an unlawful work environment is something that can only be determined by speaking with an attorney who handles harassment claims.