Racial Harassment Claim Proceeds Despite Victim’s Use of Racial Terms

A federal court in Utah ruled that a black cop’s racial harassment claims based on racial statements made by co-workers can proceed to trial despite evidence that he also referred to himself using racial terms in the workplace. Brazzle v. Washington City (D. Utah 2013).

Brazzle sued for harassment based on his co-workers’ conduct, which included joking that they should “Rodney King” him and suggestions that he dress as a slave during a local parade and that he stop driving a patrol car because citizens might think it was stolen. In its defense, the city argued that racial statements were welcome to Brazzle as evidenced by his referring to himself as “the black cop” and not objecting to co-workers calling him “Gary Coleman” and “Webster.”

The court responded saying, “Mr. Brazzle’s use of race-based terms in self-reference does not necessarily mitigate the harm in a supervisor’s or co-worker’s use of similar terms and its impact on the work environment.” Brazzle said that over time his co-workers’ conduct became increasingly offensive, and that some of the race-based comments and insults were made in the presence of supervisors who did not act. Brazzle said that he would leave the room when comments were made and that he began to work mostly on his own.  Brazzle complained to his sergeant as directed by the city’s harassment policy, but that person did nothing to stop the conduct and failed to report the complaint to Human Resources.

The court ultimately ruled that Brazzle’s alleged participation in race-based comments did not undercut his racial harassment claim.

This case illustrates the need for employers to train supervisors in harassment prevention. Even before Brazzle’s complaint, the supervisors observing the racial comments should have intervened.  Perhaps if they had, the conduct would have stopped there.  Once the complaint is made, the city is obligated to investigate and take appropriate corrective action.  Because of his position of authority, the supervisor’s failure to act on Brazzle’s complaint is considered the city’s failure to act, leaving the city in a difficult position to defend itself at trial.