In order to proceed to trial, plaintiffs claiming offensive environment harassment under Title VII or related civil rights laws must generally demonstrate that they were subjected to a series of abuses over time that made the workplace intolerable. In unusual circumstances, however, a single incident can be enough to meet the definition of hostile environment. For example, in the sexual harassment context, a physical assault could reach this legal standard. Earlier this month, the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that a single alleged use of the "N-word" was offensive enough to have potentially created a hostile working environment.

In Ayissi-Etoh v. Fannie Mae, the plaintiff alleged that a vice president threw him out of his office after complaining about treatment, using the "N-word" in the process. The trial court dismissed the racial harassment claim on the basis that this single accusation was not adequate as a matter of law to establish a claim of harassment.

The D.C. Circuit disagreed, remanding the case for jury trial. The majority opinion said that the alleged use of this term in the context of other alleged racial discrimination by supervisors was sufficient to create a hostile working environment. A concurring opinion stated that the use of the "N-word" is so offensive to African-Americans that it automatically creates a hostile environment when used by a white supervisor regardless of the context.

If the concurring opinion becomes established law, plaintiffs alleging racial harassment would have an automatic way to avoid summary judgment on the basis of the severity of the working environment. Employer harassment training should go beyond sexual harassment to cover workplace use of racial and other slurs or insults.