The old saying “sticks and stones may break by bones, but names will never hurt me” may not apply in the employment law context. After all, name calling can create psychological trauma and may even be the legal basis for a Title VII discrimination suit.

A Muslim hospital worker filed suit against his employer claiming that he had to endure a hostile work environment caused when his supervisor and co-workers incessantly called him “Bin Laden.” The employee claim that his “nickname” was motivated by his race and his religion, two things that are protected by federal law. 

The worker was originally disciplined after an altercation with his supervisor, where the “Bin Laden” appellation was initially used. After the altercation, the employee was subject to a disciplinary hearing where multiple witnesses indicated that the supervisor had used the name on several occasions prior to the altercation, and that other employees referred to him using the name in the supervisor’s presence.

Despite learning about this, the hearing officer still recommended that the worker be terminated. The worker then brought suit under Title VII, claiming that he was discriminated against, and that the other workers created a hostile work environment in violation of federal law.

Upon summary judgment, a federal district court found that there was enough evidence to create a fact question as to whether the name calling was facially motivated upon the worker’s race and religion. The court also found that the hospital could be found vicariously liable based on the supervisor’s conduct.

If you have questions about whether workplace harassment can be actionable, an experienced employment law attorney can help.