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Appeals Court Revives Chicago School Engineer's Race-Bias Suit Over N-Word

A federal appeals court has revived the race-discrimination suit of a Chicago school building engineer who alleges that his supervisor twice addressed him with the N-word and used other racially charged language.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, overruled a trial court, which had granted summary judgment to the school district because the alleged discriminatory conduct was not severe or pervasive enough and did not rise to the level of creating a "hellish" workplace for the building engineer.

The case was brought by Fred Gates, an African-American building engineer at Goudy Technology Academy in the Chicago Public Schools who was 48 in 2013 when he had run-ins with his supervisor, who oversaw engineering services at 16 schools. The court's opinion does not discuss the supervisor's race. Gates' court papers refer to the supervisor only as "nonblack."

Gates encountered his supervisor only about three times a month, but at one performance meeting, the supervisor allegedly told Gates, "you will not be promoted because of your age and because you're black."

Gates also alleges that the supervisor used the racial slur to refer to him on two occasions that year, and had said to Gates, "I'm tired of you people." The suit also alleges that the supervisor threatened at one point to write Gates's "black ass up." Gates was threatened with disciplinary action by the supervisor, court papers say, and after Gates had taken an extensive medical leave, he was transferred to a position that required him to travel among various schools.

Gates sued the school system under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging a racially hostile work environment and retaliation. The district court ruled for the district, citing 7th Circuit precedent that the "the threshold for plaintiffs is high, as the workplace that is actionable is one that is 'hellish.'"

The 7th Circuit panel, in its Feb. 20 decision in Gates v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, said the 7th Circuit had abandoned the "hellish" standard for a hostile workplace. And the district court relied on cases that had treated occasional mentions of the racial slur by a co-worker as not creating a hostile workplace.

"We have repeatedly treated a supervisor's use of racially toxic language in the workplace as much more serious than a co‐worker's," the 7th Circuit court said. "In short, when the harassment involves such appalling racist language in comments made directly to employees by their supervisors, we have not affirmed summary judgment for employers."

"Given [the supervisor's] position as Gates's supervisor, ... if a jury credits Gates's testimony about [the supervisor's] comments, it could reasonably find that Gates suffered an actionable hostile work environment," the court said. "Although [the supervisor's] conduct was relatively infrequent, ... it was severe and humiliating."

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