updated 2/21/2006 5:52:12 PM ET 2006-02-21T22:52:12

The Supreme Court stepped into a dispute Tuesday over whether white managers can be sued for calling black employees “boys.”

The court unanimously overturned an appeals court decision that said the term “boy” alone was not evidence of workplace discrimination.

The decision, one of the first actions with new Justice Samuel Alito, is a loss for Tyson Foods Inc. which was sued by two longtime black employees who claimed they were passed over for promotions by a white manager who called them “boys.”

A jury awarded Anthony Ash and John Hithon $1.75 million apiece in damages, but a judge threw out the decision.

Ash had 15 years experience with Tyson Foods and Hithon 13 years. A white man who got a management job they sought at an Alabama plant had less than two years experience.

Gary Mickelson, a Tyson Foods spokesman, said Tuesday the company is reviewing the court’s decision. “We do not tolerate discrimination in the workplace,” he said. “It’s our policy to provide a work environment free of unlawful harassment and discrimination.”

‘Verbal abuse’
Eric Schnapper, a law professor at the University of Washington who is representing the men, told justices that the term “boy” is offensive and is considered a slur by other courts. “This form of verbal abuse has its origins in the slave era,” he wrote in the appeal.

The case returns to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court in Atlanta.

The lawyers for Tyson Foods said that evidence showed the manager “was rude and curt to all employees — white and black — but had never used racial epithets.”

Ash and Hithon were among six people who sued under a 1964 civil rights law

The manager, Tom Hatley, had been brought in to fix problems at the Gadsden, Ala., plant which was losing as much as $250,000 a week, the company said.

Two white shift managers quit after he withheld their wage increases, and Ash and Hithon applied for the jobs.

The case is Ash v. Tyson Foods, 05-379.

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