Nooses and Racial Harassment Lawsuits

The hangman’s noose place among complaints of employment-related racial harassment and hostile work environment is well established. As reporter Sana Siwolop wrote in a July 10, 2000 New York Times article. “[t]he hangman’s noose has long been one of the most frightening representations of racial harassment in America, a reminder that thousands of black people died at the hands of lynch mobs from the end of the Civil War well into the 20th century.”

Indeed, courts of law have written that the hangman’s noose is among the most repugnant of all racist symbols, because it is itself an instrument of violence. As one appellate court put it: Like a slave-masters whip, the image of a noose is deeply a part of this country’s collective consciousness and history and any further explanation of how one could infer racial motive appears quite unnecessary.

At the time of Sana Siwolop’s article entitled “Nooses, Symbols of Race Hatred, At Center of Workplace Lawsuit”, officials at the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said they had at least 20 noose-related lawsuits pending or recently resolved, and, as the article reported, for an agency that files only a few hundred lawsuits a year that was a disproportionately high number. . That article discusses the fact that noose incidents are not confined to one area of the country, referring to EEOC noose lawsuits in Miami, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Georgia, as well as EEOC investigations into noose incidents conducted from the Dallas, Detroit and Kansas City EEOC offices. It further quotes the then chairwoman of the EEOC: “What I see as alarming is not just that employers are now fighting us in court … but that they’re also making statements that such [noose] incidents are just horseplay.”

In Texas, both Texas Labor Code Chapter 21 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect individuals against employment discrimination and harassment based upon race.     As explained by the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division, ethnic slurs, racial jokes, offensive or derogatory comments, or other verbal or physical conduct based on a person’s race constitute unlawful racial harassment if the work-related conduct creates an intimidating, hostile of offensive working environment, or interferes with the individual’s work performance. Accordingly, both the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, have been interpreted to prohibit requiring people to work in a discriminatorily hostile or abusive environments.

Charged with enforcing laws that prohibit racial discrimination, including racial harassment, the EEOC has continued, in the 21st century, to file lawsuits involving nooses in the workplace, including places of employment in Texas.

An EEOC press release dated March 21, 2006 discusses an EEOC lawsuit that charged a commercial coating business located in Conroe, Texas with severe racial harassment. Filed by EEOC attorneys in a Houston federal court, the racial harassment lawsuit charged that a Black employee endured a barrage of racial epithets, including the N-word and monkey, culminating in a shocking incident where white co-workers placed a noose around the employee’s neck in the company bathroom in Conroe and choked him in October 2002. As a result of the hostile work environment lawsuit filed by EEOC attorneys, the Conroe, Texas coating service business settled the Houston racial harassment lawsuit for more than $1 million and other relief, including a consent decree requiring improvement in the corporate culture. An EEOC Houston attorney familiar with the case commented that the discrimination was appalling and called on employers then to be vigilant in rooting out race discrimination from the workplace.

Fast forwarding to 2012, Texas noose lawsuits continued to be handled by the EEOC. As reported by the EEOC’s Houston office in a September 26, 2012 press release, two oil drilling companies were sued by the EEOC for race harassment and retaliation that created a racially hostile work environment. In the federal case filed by EEOC attorneys in East Texas, the EEOC charged that two white supervisors on an oil rig in northeast Texas where employees slept and worked addressed two Black employees as “n—-rs” and “black asses” and used other racially offensive terms. In addition, the supervisors segregated the men’s sleeping quarters. Further, the two Black worker’s found hangman’s nooses on their trucks, and, despite reporting the incident to the supervisors, the company did nothing to investigate the matter, according to the EEOC. Such alleged misconduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As an EEOC Houston attorney familiar with the case noted in the press release, despicable racial harassment like this has no place in the American workplace.

Less than a month later, a federal judge in San Antonio, Texas ordered a local San Antonio manufacturer of ferrous castings and producer of foundry and mold machines to implement extensive measures to prevent race harassment as result of an EEOC lawsuit charging the company with routinely subjecting Black employees to racially offensive treatment, including racially tinged materials, racist insults, slurs based on race such as the N-word, and a noose displayed in the workplace. The federal judge’s order followed a jury award of $200,000 to three former employees. A trial attorney with the San Antonio Field Office said that the case illustrated the EEOC’s continued to commitment to vindicating the public interest and make equal employment opportunity the reality in the workplace.

That commitment is a good thing because hangman nooses in the workplace continue to be a problem.

Information about employment-related racial harassment can be obtained at the website of the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division (TWC). With regard to the EEOC, additional information about the EEOC, the laws it enforces and the procedures one must follow in order to correctly file a charge of racial harassment is available in the agency’s website at . A Houston Office for the EEOC and filing of employment-related complaints about racial harassment is located at Total Plaza, 1201 Louisiana Street, 6th Floor, Houston, Texas 77002. It is open Monday – Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 pm. The phone number is listed as 1(800)669-4000.

When workplace racial harassment, including abusive racial slurs, overt symbols of racism such as a noose and racist epithets, impacts an employer’s business operations in Houston or elsewhere in Texas, people subjected to this type of hostile work environment may contact the TWC or EEOC to make charges of discrimination and trigger state or federal investigations of racial harassment complaints. In addition, people subjected to unlawful workplace racial harassment and hostile work environments may consult an attorney to discuss whether the particular facts and circumstances of the potential employment discrimination case support filing of a racial harassment or hostile work environment lawsuit.