Isolated ‘Highly Offensive Gender Slur’ Insufficient to Warrant Employee’s Termination

The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the termination of a state employee who uttered a highly offensive gender slur that was overheard by other employees.  William R. Hendrickson, Jr., a fire safety inspector with the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs (“DCA”) was terminated from his employment as a result of the slur, but his termination was reduced to a six-month suspension following a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) with the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law.  The Supreme Court ruled that suspension, not termination, was the proper punishment in light of the offense.

Facts

On December 1, 2013, while on an assignment at MetLife Stadium, which was hosting a New York Jets football game, inspectors from DCA’s Division of Fire Safety were tasked with ensuring the stadium complied with applicable safety codes.  Hendrickson and two other inspectors met in the parking lot before beginning their assignments.  Their supervisor was Senior Inspector Margaret Knight, who was not present with the three men in the parking lot.

While in the parking lot, Hendrickson learned that Senior Inspector Knight assigned him to inspect the pyrotechnics display (fireworks) which were on the roof of MetLife Stadium.  After being informed of his assignment, the two other inspectors overheard Hendrickson made an obscene remark about Senior Inspector Knight, calling her the “c-word.”  Both inspectors were offended by Hendrickson’s remark and reported the incident.  At the hearing, Hendrickson provided a different account of his reaction to the assignment, stating that he walked away and “muttered” to himself that he hoped Senior Inspector Knight “gets a disease.”  Hendrickson testified that he said a few things he was not proud of but claimed to have no recollection of using the offensive language.

After learning of Hendrickson’s outburst, Senior Inspector Knight announced to a number of inspectors, including Hendrickson, that if anyone had any issues with her, to respect her position and come to her directly to discuss and resolve the issue.  Hendrickson walked away without talking to Senior Inspector Knight and completed his assigned task without incident.

ALJ and Appellate Decisions

After the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision holding that Hendrickson uttered a gender slur in the workplace and violated the State’s policy prohibiting gender discrimination and engaged in conduct unbecoming a public employee.  While the ALJ rejected Hendrickson’s account as not credible, the ALJ found that termination was too harsh a remedy given Hendrickson’s lack of disciplinary history in the 15-months prior and 9-months after the incident.  The ALJ ordered Hendrickson be suspended for 6-months.

The Department of Consumer Affairs appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appellate Division.  The Appellate Division, substituting their judgment for that of the ALJ, reinstated the penalty of removal and Hendrickson thereafter appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Division’s decision and reinstated Hendrickson’s 6-month suspension imposed by the ALJ.  The Supreme Court determined the proper standard of review was to assess whether the sanction imposed by the ALJ was “so disproportionate to the offense, in light of all circumstances, as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness.”

While acknowledging that Hendrickson’s use of a highly offensive gender slur in a public place which was overheard by co-workers must be firmly condemned, the Supreme Court concluded that the ALJ’s decision to impose a 6-month suspension was not shocking to one’s sense of fairness.  In making this determination, the Supreme Court found the ALJ considered:  (1) Hendrickson’s outburst to be an isolated incident; (2) the incident was mitigated by Hendrickson’s unblemished disciplinary record prior to and after the incident; and (3) Hendrickson was ultimately redeemable.  As the Supreme Court stated: “A belittling gender insult uttered in the workplace by a state employee is a violation of New Jersey’s policy against discrimination and Hendrickson’s conduct was unbecoming a public employee.” Thus, the Supreme Court deferred to the ALJ’s conclusions and reinstated Hendrickson’s 6-month suspension.

Bottom Line

Employers have a responsibility to investigate complaints employees raise about harassment and discrimination in the workplace.  If the investigation concludes that an employee has engaged in the conduct complained of, often the employer is faced with a choice of how to properly discipline the employee.  In this case, while the Supreme Court did not does not excuse Hendrickson’s conduct, it found that the ultimate decision by the employer to terminate the employee was too harsh in light of the circumstances. While termination can always be considered, an employer must take into account, and properly document, any mitigating factors that apply in imposing discipline lesser than termination.

For more information please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at  jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

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