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3rd Circuit Clarifies Standard in Workplace Harassment Cases

On July 18, 2017 by Schnader in Labor and Employment

By Jo Bennett

In a decision issued last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit clarified that a single comment may give rise to a claim of workplace harassment.  In its decision, issued in Castleberry v. STI Group, the court reinstated harassment claims brought by two African Americans who contended that a supervisor had used a racial epithet and that this comment, standing alone, was sufficient under the law to prove illegal workplace harassment.

At issue in the case was whether an employee claiming workplace harassment must prove that the objectionable conduct is severe, pervasive, or both severe and pervasive.  In Castleberry, the Third Circuit clarified that an employee must demonstrate either severity or pervasiveness; the employee does not have to demonstrate that the objectionable conduct is both severe and pervasive.

The case concerned two African-American men who were fired by the staffing agency STI Group while working on a project for Chesapeake Energy Corporation.  Along with other claims, the men brought suit alleging racial harassment. The District Court dismissed the harassment claims, reasoning that a single racial slur did not support a finding that the alleged harassment was “pervasive and regular.”

In its opinion, the Third Circuit took the opportunity to clarify case precedent, which has been inconsistently stated in past appellate court rulings.  At various times, the Third Circuit has held that the correct standard to prevail on a harassment or hostile work environment claim is “severe or pervasive,” “pervasive and regular,” or “severe and pervasive.”

In Castleberry, the Third Circuit stated that “[t] he correct standard is severe or pervasive. … (T)he distinction means that ‘severity’ and ‘pervasiveness’ are alternative possibilities: some harassment may be severe enough to contaminate an environment even if not pervasive; other, less objectionable conduct will contaminate the workplace only if it is pervasive.”

The court’s clarification suggests that employers may want to review their anti-harassment policies, revise them as necessary, and provide training to managers and supervisors.


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