Employees are protected from harassment at the workplace when the underlying reason behind the harassment is protected by the law. For instance, sexual harassment takes place when employees face intentional discrimination based on sex. Racial harassment takes place when an employee is subjected to harassment based on race. A recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision makes it clear that even one isolated incident can form the basis of a harassment claim.
In Castleberry v. STI Group; (3rd Cir. no. 16-3131 (July 14, 2017), two African- American males were fired by a staffing-placement agency which employed the employees at Chesapeake Energy an oil and natural company. The employees claimed that the termination was racially motivated, citing discriminatory remarks at the workplace and unfair work treatment. The Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s
dismissal of the employees’ Complaint finding that the employees sufficiently alleged claims of harassment, disparate treatment discrimination, and retaliation.
In Castleberry, the employees alleged that when they arrived at work,
on several occasions, someone had anonymously written “don’t be black on the right of way” on sign-in sheets, and when working on a fence-removal project, a supervisor told one of the employees and his coworkers that if they had “nigger-rigged” the fence, they would be fired. Following the last incident, the employees reported the offensive language to a superior and they were fired two weeks later without explanation, they were rehired shortly thereafter, but then terminated again for “lack of work.” The employees filed a lawsuit alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1981 which provides, “All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts . . . to the full and equal benefit of all laws . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens . . .” The employees alleged a hostile work environment on the basis of race which requires that an employee show that the employee suffered intentional discrimination because of race, the discrimination was severe or pervasive, the discrimination detrimentally affected the employee, the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances, and the existence of respondeat superior liability (i.e. a basis for the employer being responsible for the conduct- such as a manager making the comments).
In Castleberry, the Third Circuit made it clear that to prevail on a harassment or hostile work environment claim, an employee must establish that . . . the discrimination was severe or pervasive, a standard the Supreme Court has articulated as much on several occasions. Then the Court considered whether a supervisor’s single use of the “n- word” is adequately “severe” and if one isolated incident is sufficient to state a claim or harassment or a hostile work environment. The Third Circuit found that an isolated incident of discrimination if severe can suffice to state a claim for harassment. Applying this standard, in Castleberry the Court held that because the employees alleged that their supervisor used a racially charged slur in front of them and their non-African- American coworkers and within the same breath, and the use of this word was accompanied by threats of termination which ultimately occurred, the single incident was sufficient to show severe conduct that could create a hostile work environment.
The Court also noted that the employee could also satisfy the “pervasive” standard as the employees alleged that on several occasions the sign-in sheets bore racially discriminatory comments and the employees were required to do menial tasks while less experienced white colleagues were instructed to perform more complex work. Thus, the Court held that the employees pled a plausible claim of a hostile work environment under either theory- as the harassment was both “severe” or “pervasive.”
In Castleberry, the Court also held that the employees had a viable retaliation claim based on their claim that they were fired for reporting the racially discriminatory remark made by their supervisor. To establish a retaliation, claim an employee must establish that the employee engaged in protected activity by making a claim of discrimination based on a good faith reasonable belief; the employer took an adverse employment action against the employee; and there was a causal connection between the employee’s participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment action. As the Third Circuit found that a single incident can amount to unlawful activity, the Third Circuit also reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the retaliation claim. The court also reversed the dismissal of the employees’ discrimination claim based on disparate treatment because the employees belong to a racial minority; there was evidence of an intent to discriminate based on race and the termination of employment is a protected activity under §1981.
Andrew Abramson is a Philadelphia area employment discrimination attorney. For more information about race discrimination and Abramson Employment Law see http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-2130158.html.