Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Third Circuit on Hostile Work Environment (Is one "n-word" enough?)

Last week, the Third Circuit issued a precedential opinion in Castleberry v. STI Group. It's an interesting opinion, on appeal from a dismissal at the pleadings stage, on the legal standard for hostile work environment claims.

One issue is very clear: the correct standard is that the harassment must be severe or pervasive - meaning that either one very severe event or a slew of not-so-serious events may suffice to state a claim (or, presumably, some combination).
Not official use.

At one point, the Court frames the issue as:
Under the correct “severe or pervasive” standard, the parties dispute 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.
The Court appears to conclude that, yes indeed, one n-word can be enough. Although, the Court notes that "the resolution of that question is context-specific." Also, strangely, that does not appear to be the actual issue presented by the facts.
Here Plaintiffs alleged that their supervisor used a racially charged slur in front of them and their non-African- American coworkers. Within the same breath, the use of this word was accompanied by threats of termination (which ultimately occurred). This constitutes severe conduct that could create a hostile work environment. Moreover, the allegations could satisfy the “pervasive” alternative established by the standard. Plaintiffs alleged that not only did their supervisor make the derogatory comment, but “on several occasions” their sign-in sheets bore racially discriminatory comments and that they were required to do menial tasks while their white colleagues (who were less experienced) were instructed to perform more complex work. Whether these allegations are true and whether they amount to “pervasiveness” are questions to be answered after discovery (for example, after determining how many times racial remarks were scribbled on the sign-in sheets). Plaintiffs have pled a plausible claim of a hostile work environment under either theory—that the harassment was “severe” or “pervasive.”
What if the slur were not accompanied by threats of termination that came to fruition? What if we were at summary judgment instead of the pleadings stage? The Court stops short of holding that one racial slur is always enough - but it came pretty close.

Sidenote: This was a Section 1981 race discrimination in contracts claim - but presumably the same analysis would apply to the more common Title VII discrimination an hostile work environment claims.