The New Jersey Supreme Court Finds That the Use of Two Offensive Slurs May Support a Hostile Work Environment Claim

by | Jun 17, 2021 | Employment Law |

In Rios, Jr. v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc., et al. (A-23-20) (08476) (June 16, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a supervisor’s use of two offensive slurs were sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).

In May 2015, Plaintiff Armondo Rios, Jr., a Hispanic male, commenced employment with Meda Pharmaceutical Inc. (“Meda”).  Mr. Rios’s direct supervisor was Tina Cheng-Avery.  Approximately one month after he commenced employment, Mr. Rios alleges that when he discussed his plan to buy a new house with Ms. Cheng-Avery, she responded with a derogatory comment about Hispanics, stating “it must be hard for a Sp** to have to get FHA loans.”  Then, in July 2015, Mr. Rios alleges that Ms. Cheng-Avery made another offensive remark about Hispanics in his presence, commenting that an actress auditioning for a Meda product commercial “would work if she didn’t look too Sp**ky.”  Mr. Rios further alleges that he reported each incident to Meda’s Director of Human Resources. In February 2016, Ms. Cheng-Avery placed Mr. Rios on probation for poor performance.  The next month, he was placed on a performance improvement plan and was terminated in June 2016.

Thereafter, Mr. Rios filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, hostile work environment in violation of the LAD.  The trial court subsequently granted the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that no rational factfinder could conclude that Ms. Cheng-Avery’s comments were sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision.  Mr. Rios subsequently filed a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court.  The key issue on appeal was whether the alleged slurs directed at Mr. Rios were sufficiently severe or pervasive enough for the claim to withstand summary judgment and proceed to trial.  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that the comments were severe enough to sustain a hostile work environment claim.

Specifically, the Supreme Court held that “Under all of the circumstances, a rational factfinder could have reasonably found from Rios’s evidence that the alleged slurs directed at him were sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment.  He should therefore be allowed to present his claim to a jury.”  In so holding, the Court found that “the two comments Cheng-Avery allegedly made were highly offensive and demeaning slurs from the perspective of an objectively reasonable Hispanic person.”  The Court further found that “Cheng-Avery’s position as a supervisor compounded the severity of the alleged remarks” and relied on Mr. Rios’s contention that he reported the alleged slurs in accord with company policy.  Accordingly, the Court found that “the conduct he alleges presents sufficient evidence of severity to create a genuine issue of material fact and call for a trial on the merits.”

This is an important victory for employees in the State of New Jersey because it reiterates that even a few highly offensive and demeaning slurs may constitute a hostile work environment in violation of the LAD.   If you have any questions about hostile work environment claims, please do not hesitate to contact Curcio Mirzaian Sirot LLC.