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Employers Beware – One Incident Can Create A Hostile Work Environment

By Eric J. Schreiner

In recent weeks, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which has jurisdiction over cases from federal district courts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, clarified the standard that governs whether a hostile environment exists for purposes of an employment discrimination claim.  More importantly, the court found that a single instance of offensive conduct can create a hostile environment that will support a harassment claim.

In Castleberry v. STI Group, the Third Circuit held that the proper standard to apply in determining whether there is a hostile work environment is whether the discrimination is “severe or pervasive.”  Prior to this holding, while some decisions of the Third Circuit had applied the “severe or pervasive” standard, other decisions had applied standards described as “pervasive and regular” or “severe and pervasive.”  Under the standard announced in Castleberry, it is now clear that a plaintiff need only prove one of two things to establish a hostile work environment – either that the discrimination was severe or that it was pervasive.  A plaintiff need not establish both.

The court in Castleberry then went on to hold that one incident of discriminatory conduct could potentially be enough to state a hostile work environment harassment claim under the “severe” prong of the “severe or pervasive” standard (although the court noted that the resolution of this question is context specific).  Specifically, in Castleberry, the court found that a supervisor’s single use of a racially charged slur was sufficiently severe under the circumstances alleged by the plaintiff former employees to state a claim for hostile work environment on the basis of race.  Thus, the court found that plaintiffs could proceed with their hostile environment claim.

The Castleberry decision should serve as a cautionary warning to employers.  If it is sufficiently severe, even a single incident of offensive conduct can support a hostile environment harassment claim and allow an employee’s claim to make it past the initial complaint stage of litigation, potentially entangling an employer defendant in expensive discovery.  Castleberry reinforces the need for employers to properly train their workforce in appropriate workplace behavior and to have necessary workplace policies in place.  An employer who does not do this risks the prospect of expensive litigation.

If you would like more information on this issue, please contact Eric J. Schreiner at (215) 496-7217 or eschreiner@kleinbard.com.