Background and Analysis:
On July 14, 2017, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that a single racial slur may be sufficient to state a claim for unlawful workplace harassment.
In Castleberry v. STI Group, the plaintiffs—two African American general laborers working on a pipeline project—alleged that they were subjected to a hostile work environment when they were told by a supervisor that they would be fired if they “[n-word]-rigged” a fence that they had been instructed to remove. Defendants argued there was no precedent for a finding that a single racial epithet could be enough to create a hostile work environment. Judge Thomas Ambro, writing for the panel, rejected the defendants’ position, holding that the United States Supreme Court’s adoption of the “severe or pervasive” standard in harassment claims suggested that a “supervisor’s single use of a racial slur could be adequately ‘severe’ and sufficient to state a claim” for harassment.
The Third Circuit’s ruling clarified case law within the circuit (covering Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) that has been somewhat in conflict for decades. Between 2001 and 2012, district courts within the circuit have used a number of different standards for determining whether a plaintiff has adequately pled workplace harassment. Some used the “severe or pervasive” standard, at least three used the “pervasive and regular” standard, and at least one case used the “severe and pervasive” standard. In its decision, the Court in Castleberry made clear that the proper standard for evaluating hostile work environment cases is whether the conduct is “severe or pervasive.”
In reversing the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims, the Court held that the racially charged slur used in the presence of non-African American coworkers, coupled with threats of termination, could constitute sufficiently severe conduct that could result in the creation of a hostile work environment.
The Castleberry decision reminds employers that even a single isolated incident, such as a repugnant comment, can result in legal liability for discrimination or harassment. Employers should take affirmative steps to train employees, especially management personnel, that slurs and epithets based on any protected category (for example, race and/or color) are not appropriate in the workplace.
Employers should do the following:
- Clearly communicate through employee handbook policies that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated, and ensure that all employees receive a copy of the handbook and sign an acknowledgement.
- Immediately and thoroughly investigate any complaints of discrimination (including harassment) and implement prompt remedial measures, which are designed to correct any prior issues and prevent similar conduct from occurring in the future.
- Periodically train all supervisors and employees regarding discrimination and harassment recognition and prevention.