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Could the Miami Dolphins be liable for racial harassment?

Many sports fans have been following the situation in Miami involving the claims of former Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin. Martin, who is African American, claims that his teammates, including fellow lineman Richie Incognito, racially harassed him. Martin left the team because of the harassment. Could the Dolphins be legally liable for Incognito’s harassment? The answer is, it depends.

The harassment would have had to have been severe or frequent enough to create a hostile work environment. Given reports of repeated use of racial slurs, Martin would likely be able to prove that a hostile work environment existed. An important factor in the case, however, is that it involved co-worker harassment. Incognito and other players were not Martin’s supervisors and that makes a big difference in harassment cases.

Because this case would involve co-worker harassment, for the Dolphins to be held liable for racial harassment, Martin would have to prove that Dolphins team management, such as the coaching staff, knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to correct the problem. If Martin didn’t complain to management about the harassment before he left the team, it could be difficult for him to prove that management knew or should have known that he found any of the harassment offensive. Based on reports from several Dolphins players, it was quite common for players to give each other a hard time and make fun of each other. In that environment, team management may convincingly claim that they didn’t know that Martin found the harassment as offensive as he obviously did. Of course, even in that type of environment, there are lines that should not be crossed–such as calling someone a racial slur. If Dolphins team management knew about the racial slurs and did nothing, the team could be in legal trouble. Martin shouldn’t have to tell anyone that he found the use of racial slurs offensive for team management to discipline those who uttered the slurs.