In Ellis v. Corrections Corporation of America, four African American nurses filed various claims, including racial discrimination and hostile work environment under both Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, against their employer, a private "corrections" company that operated the jail in which they worked. Specifically, as to the hostile work environment claim, plaintiffs alleged that: (1) their supervisor had a book in her office entitled The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, which made repeated references to monkeys; (2) coworkers made two "stray comments" about monkeys over the intercom system; (3) a jail physician made a racially offensive comment about the skin color of an inmate; and (4) two coworkers wore clothing that displayed the Confederate flag.
The Seventh Circuit federal court (Chicago) affirmed summary judgment in favor of the company on all claims, finding that a reasonable person would not view the references to monkeys in the supervisor's book as objectively hostile or abusive. In fact, the court pointed out that the book clearly analogized monkeys to workplace problems, not people. Further, the court found the hostile work environment claim could not survive on the remaining isolated incidents and stray comments, as they were not severe enough to support an inference of harassment.
While this case certainly should not be read to encourage such offensive and inflammatory behavior, it demonstrates that the threshold requirement must be met to successfully prevail on such a claim, i.e., sufficiently severe or pervasive misconduct to constitute a hostile work environment.