In a tweet on July 27, 2019, President Trump described Representative Elijah Cumming’s Congressional District in Baltimore as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
On July 14, 2019, President Trump also tweeted: “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly… and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Not surprisingly, these tweets are a hot topic of debate across America. On one side of the debate are those who describe President Trump’s tweets as racist. On the other side of the debate are those who describe the accusations of racism as hypocritical, partisan or unfounded.
So, why should such debates be avoided in the workplace? The answer is two-fold:
First, the debates themselves may be cited as part of a charge or lawsuit alleging race discrimination or harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 (“Title VII”), the Civil Rights Act of 1866 or state or local law.
To illustrate this point, consider the debate which continues today regarding the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Workplace remarks stemming from such debate are still cited as evidence in cases alleging race discrimination or harassment in employment. In Chattman v. Toho Tanex America, Inc., 686 F.3d 339 (6th Cir. 2012), for example, the claim that a human resources manager was racially biased included a joke as to O.J. Simpson’s innocence. A racially-charged disagreement as to the O.J. Simpson verdict was also at the heart of a race discrimination claim in Campbell v. Hamilton County, 2001 WL 1322785 (6th Cir. Oct. 17, 2001).
Other racially-charged debates have been referenced in race discrimination cases. In David v. Trugreen Partnership, Ltd., 1999 WL 288686 (N.D. Tex. May 5, 1999), it was a debate regarding the trial of police officers who had allegedly beaten Rodney King. In Neal v. Whole Foods Market Company, Inc., 2018 WL 2219362 (E.D.La. May 15, 2018), it was a discussion regarding Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct.
Second, the very nature of the debate surrounding President Trump’s tweets forecloses any argument the debate is benign as a matter of law.
Take for example the evidence at issue in EEOC v. WC&M Enterprises, Inc., 496 F.3d 393 (5th Cir. 2007). In this case, the plaintiff was an Indian and practicing Muslim who alleged a hostile environment at work. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, but the Fifth Circuit reversed. As grounds for reversal, the Fifth Circuit said sufficient evidence existed to support the claim that the plaintiff was discriminated against on the basis of national origin and religion. This evidence included the taunt: “Why don’t you just go back where you came from if that is what you believe?”
In Siam v. Porter, 2006 WL 1530155 (N.D.Cal. June 5, 2006), a Title VII case alleging race and national origin discrimination, a federal court cited evidence that a decision-maker harbored prejudices against Asians generally, and Filipinos in particular. Such evidence included a complaint by the decision-maker that an Asian family had moved in next door and caused a cockroach infestation.
To be sure, not all remarks made during a racially-charged debate will support a claim of race bias. As many employers already know, however, even frivolous lawsuits cost money to defend.
Especially as to a newsworthy racially-charged debate, such as President Trump’s tweets, the urge to take a side can be overwhelming. Where the debate spills into the workplace, however, the risk to an employer is a costly claim or litigation. Employer inaction or acquiescence only increases this risk.
Prudent risk management thus dictates that an employer include debates rooted in race amongst prohibited activities in the workplace. Better yet, such a prohibition should be part of the employer’s discrimination and harassment training program.
[This post is an update from a May 2018 post entitled “Why Your Workforce Should Not Be Debating Roseanne’s Demise!]
Robert G. Chadwick, Jr. frequently speaks to non-profit organizations regarding labor & employment issues. To contact him for a speaking engagement please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org