Single Racial Slur Can Create A Hostile Work Environment Featured

  22 September 2017

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal has held in, Castleberry v. STI Group, that a single word or incident may create a hostile work environment.

The case involved two African-American workers (“Plaintiffs”) who worked as pipeline laborers for STI Group. They 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 that although they have significant experience working on pipelines (more than their non-African-American coworkers), they were only permitted to clean around the pipelines rather than work on them. The workers also alleged that while they were working on a fence-removal project, a supervisor stated that if they had “nigger- rigged” the fence, they would be terminated. Seven coworkers confirmed that the supervisor made the racial slur. The two workers reported the offensive language to a superior and the company terminated them two weeks later without explanation. The company rehired the workers shortly thereafter, but subsequently terminated them for “lack of work.”

Plaintiffs brought suit in District Court against both STI and Chesapeake alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII. As to the harassment claim, the District Court determined it could not survive a motion to dismiss because 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 Title VII. The District Court similarly found that there were not sufficient facts alleged demonstrating intent to fire plaintiffs because of their race or that their termination was racially motivated. Finally, regarding plaintiffs’ retaliation claim, it determined plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that an objectively reasonable person would have believed that the comment made by their supervisor was unlawful—a necessary element to plead retaliation under Title VII. Plaintiffs appealed to the Third Circuit. On appeal the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the correct standard for an alleged hostile work environment claim is “severe or pervasive” conduct. 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. Depending on the circumstances, a single word or incident, such as a racial slur, can be severe enough to constitute a hostile work environment. Read more here.