On June 15, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts (the federal trial court in Boston) denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss in Campbell v. Bristol Community College. The plaintiff, Campbell, sued her former employer, Bristol Community College, alleging discrimination and retaliation on the basis of race.
Facts of the Case
The complaint alleged that, in early fall of 2012, the president and dean of Bristol Community College, along with others, repeatedly referred to a large educational grant as the “Mack Daddy” grant. Campbell alleged that the phrase “Mack Daddy” is a racially offensive slur used to describe "a black man who pimps out women." Campbell’s complaint alleges that she complained to her superiors about the choice of words and she then suffered adverse consequences including an increased workload, denial of resources, and termination. Campbell filed suit alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In its motion to dismiss, the defendant argued that the phrase “Mack Daddy” was objectively race-neutral and that it fell within the “stray remarks” doctrine. This legal doctrine provides that “stray remarks” made by decision makers that were unrelated to the decisional process (i.e., the decision to take adverse employment actions against the plaintiff) are normally insufficient to prove discriminatory animus.
The court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case because it found that Campbell alleged enough facts in the complaint to show that high-ranking employees at Bristol Community College made a statement with racially discriminatory intent and that she stated a “plausible claim for relief.” The court referenced several 1st Circuit Court of Appeals cases (the federal appellate court located in Boston, which covers Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico) which explain that statements alone may not be enough to prove the employer’s discriminatory intent, but when statements are connected and related to the employer’s action, the statements may be relevant to understanding an employer’s intent. Additionally, the court stated that it is possible that the statements made were not intended to be racially charged, but more facts are needed before a complete analysis can be done.
As a result of the ruling, the case proceeds into the lengthy and expensive discovery (investigation and evidence exchange) phase.
Takeaways for Employers and Potential Plaintiffs
This case illustrates how casual or colloquial statements made in the workplace can cause big problems. While it is possible that the statements were made without racial animus, they certainly were received by Campbell as discriminatory. Managers should be on the lookout for this type of loose talk in the workplace and encourage employees to speak professionally. Employers should ensure that they have appropriate policies in place that instruct employees about the use of offensive or insensitive language. Ideally, employers should conduct training of its employees and managers on these issues.
If individuals encounter the use of similar words or phrases in the workplace and are offended by them, consult your employer’s policies and utilize the employer’s internal complaint process. If no action or investigation is taken by the employer in response to the complaint, then be aware of any retaliatory actions that the employer may take against you, similar to those alleged by Campbell above.
A full copy of the court opinion can be found here.