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James Tarquin, P.A
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Court Finds That Supervisor’s Use Of A Racial Slur On A Single Occasion Can Create A Racial Hostile Work Environment

The Hostile Work Environment

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (§ 1981) protect employees from discrimination on the basis of race.  Discrimination cases under Title VII and § 1981 are analyzed under the same standards.  Racial harassment is a form of race discrimination prohibited by Title VII and § 1981

In order to state a claim for racial harassment, an employee must establish that he or she was subjected to racially harassing behavior that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms or conditions of employment and create a hostile work environment.  Because racial harassment does not have to both severe and pervasive to violate Title VII or § 1981, courts have acknowledged that a single incident of racial harassment, if sufficiently extreme, can create a racial hostile work environment.  As explained by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Rodgers v. Western-Southern Life Ins. Co., 12 F.3d 66 (7th Cir. 1993), “[p]erhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment . . . than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates.”  Echoing the reasoning in Rodgers, the decision by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Castleberry v. STI Group, 2017 WL 2990160 (3d Cir. July 14, 2017) demonstrates that a supervisor’s single use of a racial slur in front of African-American employees can create a racial hostile work environment.

In that case, Atron Castleberry (Castleberry) and John Brown (Brown) brought claims for racial harassment and retaliation in violation of § 1981.  Castleberry and Brown, who are African-American, were fired by STI Group, a staffing-placement agency for Chesapeake Energy Corporation (Chesapeake).   Castleberry and Brown were hired by STI Group as general laborers and supervised by managers from both STI Group and Chesapeake.  Shortly after they began working at a particular worksite, the only other African-American employee on the crew was fired.  Castleberry and Brown alleged that when they arrived at work on several occasions, someone had anonymously written “don’t be black on the right of way” on the sign-in sheets.  Castleberry and Brown also claimed that, although they had significant experienced working on oil pipelines, they were only allowed to clean around the pipelines rather than work on them.  Castleberry and Brown further alleged that a supervisor used a racial slur in front of them and then immediately threatened them with termination.  Castleberry and Brown complained about the racial slur and were fired two weeks later without explanation.    

After the case was filed, STI Group and Chesapeake immediately filed a motion asking the trial court to dismiss the case.  The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the case.  On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal and reinstated the case.

Supervisor’s Use Of A Racial Slur Is Severe Harassment

At the outset of its opinion, the Third Circuit explained that the threshold issue before it was whether a supervisor’s single use of a racial slur can be sufficiently severe to create a racial hostile work environment.  STI Group and Chesapeake argued that the trial court’s dismissal was correct because a supervisor’s use of racial slur on a single occasion does not constitute a racial hostile work environment.  In rejecting their argument, the Third Circuit observed that numerous courts have “held that an extreme isolated act of discrimination can create a hostile work environment.”  In doing so, the Third Circuit pointed to the decision by the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Adams v. Austal, U.S.A., LLC, 754 F.3d 1240 (11th Cir. 2014) as support for the proposition that a single incident of racial harassment can create a hostile work environment.  In Adams, the Eleventh Circuit found that although a supervisor’s carving of a racial slur into a workplace wall was an “isolated act,” it was “severe” enough to create a hostile work environment.

In applying these principles, the Third Circuit found that the supervisor’s single use of a racial slur, coupled with the threat of termination, constituted “severe conduct that could create a hostile work environment.”  The Third Circuit further explained that because Castleberry and Brown also alleged that on several occasions their sign-in sheets contained racially discriminatory comments and they were required to do menial tasks while their white co-employees were allowed to perform more complex work, their allegations “could satisfy the ‘pervasive’ standard for establishing a racial hostile work environment.”  Thus, the Third Circuit concluded, Castleberry and Brown had alleged sufficient facts to establish a plausible claim of a racial hostile work environment under a theory that the racial harassment was either “severe” or “pervasive.”    

The Third Circuit also rejected the trial court’s conclusion that Castleberry’s and Brown’s retaliation claim failed as a matter of law because they could not reasonably believe that a supervisor’s use of a racial slur on a single occasion amounted to unlawful discrimination.  In doing so, the Third Circuit explained that because a supervisor’s single use of a racial slur can be sufficiently severe to create a racial hostile work environment, a single incident of racial harassment “can amount to unlawful activity” sufficient to support a retaliation claim.    

Consult With Central Florida Race Discrimination Lawyers   

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have substantial experience representing employees who have been the victim of race discrimination in the workplace, including racial harassment and retaliation for complaining about race discrimination at work.  If you have been the victim of race discrimination or racial harassment, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Ocala based race discrimination attorneys.  Our employee rights law firm takes race discrimination and racial harassment cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover. 

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