Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending July 21, 2017

By Matthew Schorr

Castleberry v. STI Group, No. 16-3131 (decided July 14, 2017)

This week focuses on a decision out of the United States Court of Appeals For the Third Circuit. This case was appealed from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The co-plaintiffs, Atron Castleberry and John Brown, are African-American males hired by Defendants in 2010 as general laborers. Over the course of their employment they experienced several instances of racial harassment by Defendants’ employees and upper management. In addition to overtly racist comments, management also did not allow these two employees to do the same work as their non-African-American counterparts. The Plaintiffs’ termination occurred after an incident where a supervisor told Plaintiffs that if they had “n*gger-rigged” the fence they would be fired. Plaintiffs reported the offensive language to a superior and were fired two weeks later without explanation. They were then rehired and fired again for “lack of work.”

Plaintiffs brought a claim in Pennsylvania District Court alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation under §1981. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs’ §1981 claim and the Plaintiffs appealed to the Third Circuit.

The Third Circuit discussed the confusing and conflicting precedents regarding claims of harassment or hostile work environment. There have been several different standards applied over the years, so the Third Circuit took this opportunity to clarify. The Third Circuit decided that the correct standard is “severe or pervasive.” This was a significant change from the previously existing case law standard of “severe and pervasive.” The disjunctive created by the word “or” now puts the Third Circuit law firmly in line with the New Jersey Supreme Court in Lehmann v. ToysR’Us, Inc., 130 N.J. 587 (1993) and the United States Supreme Court in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986).

Additionally, the court determined that a single use of the “n-word” can suffice to state a claim for hostile work environment or harassment. The court further clarified this point by stating that a Plaintiff must plead the incident to be extreme enough to change the terms and conditions of employment to serve as a harassment claim. This is significant because the court is ruling that a single isolated incident of discrimination is enough to state a claim for harassment. This ruling puts the Third Circuit in line with the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in Taylor v. Metzger, 706 A.2d 685 (1998).

This is great decision for employees and forces employers to be even more vigilant to prevent racial harassment in the workplace.

Argued before AMBRO, VANASKIE, and RESTREPO, Circuit Judges.