The 3rd Circuit Clarifies the Standard for Hostile Work Environment Claims
August 10, 2017
Isaac Graff, Esq., Ty Hyderally Esq. and Chantal Guerriero
The Third Circuit recently cleared up some confusion regarding the standard for hostile work environment claims under federal law and ruled clearly that a single racist remark, if severe enough, can establish a legal action for a hostile work environment. Castleberry v. STI Group, No. 16-3131 (3d Cir. 2017). The holding reversed the District Court’s ruling dismissing the claim because the facts pled did not support a finding that the harassment was “pervasive and regular.”
In the case, two African-American plaintiffs, Atron Castleberry and John Brown, worked as general laborers for the defendants, STI Group and Chesapeake Energy Corporation. The plaintiffs were terminated by STI Group, a staffing agency for Chesapeake Energy Corporation, shortly after they complained of being subjected to racist treatment by their supervisor. Castleberry and Brown filed suit against their former employer in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation on the basis of race under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Their harassment allegations centered around an incident when a supervisor asked them if they had “nigger-rigged” a fence they were working on.
The defendants argued on a motion to dismiss, and the District Court agreed, that this remark did not constitute a hostile work environment, because this single incident of harassment did not meet the requirement that harassing behavior be “regular and pervasive.”
The plaintiffs, in turn, argued on appeal that this was the wrong standard to apply, and that all they were required to plead was that the harassment was “severe or pervasive.” The 3rd Circuit, in an instance of self-reflection, noted that the confusion resulted from conflicting precedents within the 3rd Circuit, in which the Court had alternatively applied the severe or pervasive and the pervasive and regular standards.
Thus, the 3rd Circuit took this opportunity to clarify its holding that in order to establish a hostile work environment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (and Title VII, as the Court noted) an employee must show that “(1) the employee suffered intentional discrimination because of his/her race, (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive, (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected the plaintiff, (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances, and (5) the existence of respondeat superior [for example, the plaintiff’s supervisor] liability.” Mandel v. M & Q Packaging Corp., 706 F.3d 157, 167 (3d Cir. 2013).
The 3rd Circuit also noted that severe or pervasive is the correct standard under the Supreme Court’s rulings as well, which apply a totality of the circumstances approach in examining “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.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 22 (1993). Accordingly, the 3rd Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s decision to dismiss the harassment claims.
Going forward, the 3rd Circuit has now clarified that severity and pervasiveness are alternate possibilities. Thus, it is without question that a New Jersey employee can establish a hostile work environment claim with as little as a single remark, as long as the remark is severe enough. Employers can no longer argue, as an objective matter, that one incident of harassing behavior is insufficient to establish a hostile work environment claim. What remains, however, is the subjective question of what is severe??
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