WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to put stricter limits on racial slurs in the workplace, turning away an appeal from a black computer technician who was fired shortly after complaining that a white co-worker loudly described a pair of crime suspects as "two black monkeys in a cage."
Robert Jordan was dismissed from his contract job for IBM in suburban Maryland a month after his complaint and was told that he was "being disruptive." Jordan said he found the comment shocking and disgusting and believed his supervisors should reprimand the employee who said it.
But his race-bias lawsuit against IBM exposed the fact that the nation's civil rights laws did not necessarily protect an employee from a racist or sexist slur by a co-worker.
Even if Jordan was fired simply for complaining about the racist comment, his employer did not violate civil rights law, a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals said in dismissing his lawsuit. That's because "an isolated racial slur" does not create a "hostile work environment," the lower court said.
"No objectively reasonable person could have believed IBM's office was in the grips of a hostile work environment," said Judge Paul V. Niemeyer for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, nor was there evidence that it was "infected with severe or pervasive" racism.
The full appeals court split 5-5 on the issue last fall, and the dissenters urged the Supreme Court to hear Jordan's appeal.
Civil rights lawyers also filed briefs urging the justices to take up the case. They said the ruling left employees in a "Catch-22 situation."
They had been told by managers and by the courts that they should report instances of racism or sexual harassment in the workplace. At the same time, they were vulnerable to being dismissed for making such complaints.
On Monday the Supreme Court issued a one-line order without explanation, saying Jordan's appeal had been turned down.
The incident that led to Jordan's firing took place on the day police captured the two snipers who had terrorized the Washington area in October 2002. Jordan and several other employees were watching on television when the two suspects, both black men, were shown.
"They should put those two black monkeys in a cage with a bunch of black apes and let the apes [sexually assault] them," one white employee exclaimed.
Shocked and offended, Jordan discussed the comment with several others in the office and was told the same person had made similar statements in the past.
He then reported the comment to a manager.
Two IBM supervisors later said they spoke with the white employee, and he admitted to saying, "They should put those two monkeys in a cage." They also said they counseled the white employee about his comments.
Jordan had been a contract worker for IBM for four years, but his schedule was changed a few days after his complaint. He was fired in late November and was told that the IBM staff no longer wanted him there.
In their legal appeals, the civil rights lawyers pointed to the Supreme Court's rulings on sexual harassment in 1998 that told employees they should complain to managers whenever they encountered sexist and demeaning comments on the job.
The same rule should apply to black employees, they said. They should not be faced "with virulent expression of racism in the workplace" and be subject to punishment if they complain, they argued.