Third Circuit Rules Single Slur May Establish Workplace Harassment

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals was recently given the opportunity to clarify the elements of pleading a hostile work environment under federal law. Castleberry v. STI Group, 863 F.3d 259 (3d Cir. 2017). The two plaintiffs in the case were both African-American males who were hired by a staffing-placement agency in 2010, defendant STI Group (“STI”), and assigned to work for co-defendant Chesapeake Energy Corporation (“CEC”). Id. at 262. The plaintiffs alleged that, when they arrived at work on several occasions, someone had anonymously written “don’t be black on the right of way” on the sign-in sheets and, when working on a fence-removal project, a supervisor told plaintiff Castleberry and his coworkers that if they had “nigger-rigged” the fence, they would be fired. The two plaintiffs reported the offensive language to a superior and were fired two weeks later without explanation. They were rehired shortly thereafter, but then terminated again for “lack of work.” Ibid.

The plaintiffs filed suit against STI and CEC alleging harassment (hostile work environment), discrimination (wrongful discharge), and retaliation (wrongful discharge) in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (providing for equal rights under the law). Id. at 262. The District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed all three claims because it determined “the facts pled did not support a finding that the alleged harassment was ‘pervasive and regular,’ which it deemed a requisite element to state a claim under § 1981.” Ibid.

The principle issue on appeal was whether the District Court utilized the correct standard for determining a hostile work environment. The plaintiffs asserted that the District Court applied the wrong legal standard in dismissing their claims when it required them to plead discrimination that was “pervasive and regular.” Id. at 263 (emphasis in original). Instead, they argued that they only were required to plead that they were subjected to a hostile work environment in which there was discrimination that was “severe or pervasive.” Ibid. (emphasis in original).

The Third Circuit noted that its precedent on the issue was inconsistent, sometimes utilizing the “severe or pervasive” standard, sometimes utilizing the “pervasive and regular” standard, and sometimes even utilizing a combination of the two in the same opinion. Id. at 263-64. The Third Circuit therefore took this opportunity to “clarify” that the correct standard is, as argued by the plaintiffs, the “severe or pervasive” standard. Id. at 264 (citing Pa. State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S. 129, 133 (2004), a United States Supreme Court case). The Court explained that standard: “the distinction ‘means that ‘severity’ and ‘pervasiveness’ are alternative possibilities: some harassment may be severe enough to contaminate an environment even if not pervasive; other, less objectionable, conduct will contaminate the workplace only if it is pervasive.’” Ibid. (quoting Jensen v. Potter, 435 F.3d 444, 449, fn. 3 (3d Cir. 2006)). “Whether an environment is hostile requires looking at the totality of the circumstances, including: ‘the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.’” Ibid. (quoting Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S.17, 23 (1993)).

With the correct legal standard clarified and articulated, the Court then turned to the facts of the case and the issue of “whether the supervisor’s single use of the ‘n-word’ is adequately ‘severe’ and if one isolated incident is sufficient to state a claim under that standard.” Id. at 264. The Court ultimately determined that at this stage of the litigation, a motion to dismiss as opposed to a motion for summary judgment, “the use of [the ‘n-word’] word was accompanied by threats of termination (which ultimately occurred). This constitutes severe conduct that could create a hostile work environment.” Id. at 265. The Third Circuit, therefore, reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ complaint and remanded the case to proceed to discovery. Id. at 268.

The holding of this case is tempered due to the fact that it was decided on an appeal of a motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs may very well end up losing the case after discovery is completed and the defendants file a motion for summary judgment. However, the case is important because the Third Circuit has now firmly clarified that the “severe or pervasive” disjunctive standard applies to hostile work environment claims brought under federal law and pleading one egregious racial slur is enough to satisfy the “severe” prong to allow the case to move on to discovery. This author notes that this was already the law under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49 (the “LAD”). See Taylor v. Metzger, 152 N.J. 490, 508 (1998) (Sherriff-supervisor’s single use of the phrase “jungle bunny” referring to a subordinate female, African-American officer “presented adequate evidence of the severity of defendant’s remark to create a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to survive defendant’s motion for summary judgment”).

If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination, harassment or retaliation at your workplace, contact the attorneys at The Sattiraju & Tharney, LLP, located in Princeton, New Jersey, at (609) 722-7039 for a free telephone consultation. We fight for workers’ justice under a litany of employee-rights statutes including the LAD and federal statutes.