Single Racial Slur Enough for Hostile Work Environment, Says 3rd Circuit

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

August 11, 2017

A supervisor's single use of the "n-word" is sufficiently severe to support a hostile work environment, racial harassment lawsuit, a federal appellate court has ruled. In Castlebury v. STI Group, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals explained that the proper standard to apply in hostile environment cases is whether discrimination is severe or pervasive, rather than pervasive and regular.

The employer argued there was no case in which the 3rd Circuit had held a single isolated incident to constitute a hostile work environment. The lower court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit. But in reinstating the case, the appellate court finds the employer missed the point. It notes that the Supreme Court and other federal appellate courts have similarly held that an extreme isolated act of discrimination can create a hostile environment.

In this case, a pair of African-American general laborers claimed that their supervisor had used the 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.

Apart from that incident, the plaintiffs claimed that on several occasions their workplace sign-in sheets bore racially discriminatory comments, and they were required to do menial tasks. Thus, the appellate court concluded the men had stated a plausible claim under either theory - that the harassment was "severe" or "pervasive."

The ruling serves as another reminder to employers about the importance of training all supervisors and employees that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated.