Third Circuit Rules that a Single Incident Can Sustain a Workplace Harassment Claim

Musical notesFederal law prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of numerous factors. Common examples of unlawful discrimination include refusal to hire, termination, or harassment in the workplace because of a claimant’s race, sex, religion, etc. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes New Jersey employment discrimination claims under federal law, recently ruled on the question of how much harassment a plaintiff must allege to maintain a claim for workplace harassment based on race. The defendant argued that a plaintiff must allege an ongoing pattern or multiple instances of harassment. The court, citing the plain language of precedent decisions, held that a single incident of race-based harassment can be sufficient to sustain a claim. Castleberry v. STI Group, No. 16-3131, slip op. (3rd Cir., Jul. 14, 2017).

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is probably the most well-known federal statute dealing with race discrimination in employment, but it is not the only one. The plaintiffs in Castleberry brought their claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 rather than Title VII. This statute addresses equal rights “to make and enforce contracts” and engage in certain other activities. It was originally enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Congress amended it in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. This law added subsection (b), which clarifies that the contractual rights it protects include employment claims like wrongful termination.

The Castleberry lawsuit alleges workplace harassment on the basis of race in the form of a hostile work environment. The Third Circuit has defined a five-part test for establishing a hostile work environment based on race:  the plaintiff experienced (1) intentional discrimination based on race (2) that was “severe or pervasive,” (3) that “detrimentally affected the plaintiff,” (4) that would have a comparable effect on “a reasonable person” in a similar situation, and (5) that occurred in a situation in which respondeat superior liability would apply. Castleberry, slip op. at 5, quoting Mandel v. M & Q Packaging Corp., 706 F.3d 157, 167 (3d Cir. 2013). The Third Circuit’s analysis in Castleberry focused on the “severe or pervasive” element.

The plaintiffs are two African-American men who were hired as “general laborers” by the defendants. Castleberry at 3. For most of the time they worked there, they alleged that they were the only African-American employees. They alleged several racially offensive remarks by co-workers and claimed that they were assigned menial work despite having more experience than their co-workers. Their main allegation involves a particularly infamous racial slur used by a supervisor who was directly addressing them, which was corroborated by multiple witnesses. They reported the incident and were fired several days later.

The district court dismissed the lawsuit, finding that a single racial slur did not meet the legal standard for a hostile work environment. The court dismissed the case again after the plaintiffs amended their complaint. The Third Circuit reversed these rulings. It held that the “or” in “severe or pervasive” indicates that “an isolated incident of discrimination (if severe) can suffice to state a claim for harassment.” Id. at 8.

If you are dealing with a dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York, contact the experienced and knowledgeable race discrimination lawyers at the Resnick Law Group today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

Race Discrimination Lawsuit Asks Court to Hold Restaurant Franchise Owner Liable for Acts of Franchisee, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, May 11, 2015

Federal Race Discrimination Lawsuit Accused Cosmetics Company CEO of a Wide Range of Derogatory Statements, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, April 17, 2015

New Jersey Federal Court Allows Race, National Origin Discrimination Lawsuit to Proceed, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, January 27, 2015

Photo credit: By Original author: Denelson83, Vectorisation: Cathfolant (File:Music-slur.png) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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