Most employers take proactive steps to prevent and eliminate workplace harassment. Until recently, courts recognized and rewarded the proactive approach. Businesses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware could avoid liability for hostile work environment claims if they rooted out the problem before it became “severe and pervasive.”
Courts had long held that a single slur, even if highly offensive, was not pervasive and therefore could not trigger employer liability. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania upheld that standard in Castleberry v. STI Group, a 2015 case involving African American workers who were subjected to a racial slur and threatened with termination in a single incident. The District Court dismissed the claim.
On appeal, the Third Circuit overturned the District’s ruling. In doing so, the Court noted that the “plaintiffs alleged that their supervisor used a racially charged slur in front of them and their non-African-American co-workers…Within the same breath, the use of this word was accompanied by threats of termination (which ultimately occurred).” Under these facts, the Third Circuit held that a single, isolated slur constitutes severe conduct that could create a hostile work environment.
Castleberry is now the law of the land for all Pennsylvania employers (and those in New Jersey and Delaware) who are subject to federal anti-discrimination laws. And it is certainly bad news for employers. The ruling makes it much easier for a hostile work environment plaintiff to survive summary judgment, leading to increased defense costs and greater potential for a costly verdict.
In light of the Third Circuit’s holding, employers would be wise to take inventory of its anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to ensure that they are up to date and prohibit all occurrences of discriminatory harassment. Supervisors and managers should also be made aware that even a single, isolated racial slur can now lead to liability.
We will continue to monitor Third Circuit cases that develop under Castleberry and any updates will be reported here on our blog.