Firefighter Case Illustrates High Standards For Harassment Complaints

The high bar set by the burden of proof for racial and sexual harassment claims is one of the reasons that most harassment lawsuits fail. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, to make a claim of racial harassment, an employee must show that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment and create a discriminatorily abusive working environment. If conduct or statements are sporadic or infrequent, they will not support a claim for harassment.

These principles were recently applied in a lawsuit brought by four African-American firefighters against the City of Pensacola, Florida. The firefighters submitted affidavits complaining that they had been referred to by the term “DAN,” which they described as an acronym for “Dumb Ass Nigger,” “niggers,” “black beetles,” and, in reference to black children, “nigglets.” The firefighters also described hangman’s nooses that were present in the workplace on four occasions and two occasions on which a white firefighter donned a sheet or a pillowcase.

A federal court found that these allegations were insufficient to support a harassment claim. As the Court viewed it, “the incidents alleged by the firefighters apparently took place over approximately 15 years, making the occurrences infrequent and isolated. Moreover, there is no evidence showing that, as a whole, the firefighters were subjected to conduct so severe as to pose an actual threat of physical harm to them or to unreasonably interfere with their work performance. There is no evidence that the firefighters have been unable to perform their jobs. The Court concludes that the firefighters have failed to show that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether their workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of their employment and create an abusive working environment.”

Streeter v. City of Pensacola, 2009 WL 248103 (N.D.Fla. 2009).

This article appears in the March 2009 issue