A single racial slur in the workplace may be enough to establish a lawsuit for harassment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled today.
Clarifying muddled precedent about what needs to be alleged for workplace discrimination claims to survive the pleadings stage, a three-judge panel of the circuit determined plaintiffs need to show that harassment is “severe or pervasive,” rather than “severe and pervasive.” The decision in Castleberry v. STI Group reversed a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which had dismissed the claims.
The two African American plaintiffs in the case, Atron Castleberry and John Brown, brought harassment, discrimination and retaliation claims after they were terminated for reporting to supervisors that they had been told they would be fired if they “nigger-rigged” a fence they had been instructed to remove. Castleberry and Brown had been general laborers on a pipeline project for Chesapeake Energy Corp., and were working for the staffing agency and subcontractor on the project, STI Group.
The defendants had sought to block the case early in the litigation, arguing that no courts found that a single, isolated incident could constitute a hostile work environment, but, noting some conflicting case law on the issue, Judge Thomas Ambro, said the defendants’ arguments “miss the point.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision to adopt the ‘severe or pervasive’ standard-thereby abandoning a ‘regular’ requirement-lends support that an isolated incident of discrimination (if severe) can suffice to state a claim for harassment,” Amrbo said. “Otherwise why create a disjunctive standard where alleged ‘severe’ conduct-even if not at all ‘pervasive’-can establish a plaintiff’s harassment clam?”
Daniel Horowitz of Swartz Swidler represents the plaintiffs, Terri Patak of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote represents STI Group, and Donna Walsh of Myers Brier & Kelly represents Chesapeake Energy Corp.. Each attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.
This story is developing.