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Workplace Harassment: Employers Face Higher Standards, Employees Enjoy More Protection

By Strich Law Firm, Jul 31 2017 05:28PM

A new standard for workplace harassment was established in a recent decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The plaintiffs in Castleberry v. STI Group, two African employees of staffing agency STI Group, claimed that their supervisor threatened to fire them if they “[N-word]-rigged” the job of clearing a fence. The employees reported this comment and were terminated two weeks later without explanation. Claiming harassment, discrimination and retaliation, the two workers filed suit against their employer. The case reached the Third Circuit after a trial judge in Pennsylvania’s Middle District dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims of harassment.

At the onset of this case, workers needed to show that their employer’s behavior was “severe and pervasive” to be considered harassment. In other words, treatment had to be both seriously offensive and repeated to constitute a viable harassment claim. However, the Third Circuit judge in Castleberry v. STI Group believed that this standard was vague and inconsistent. He clarified that the correct standard to determine workplace harassment was that treatment had to be “severe or pervasive”. This meant that behavior did not have to be both serious and repeated to be harassment, but could rather be viable if one or the other created a hostile work environment.

The Third Circuit judge in Castleberry v. STI Group ruled that the supervisor’s use of the N-word together with a threat of termination made his behavior “severe”. The application of this new standard reversed the trial court’s decision and allowed the plaintiffs’ claim to stand as harassment. Thanks to this new standard, employers will likely face a greater responsibility to act respectfully in the workplace and employees can expect wider protection from offensive treatment.

Comments: Clarification of the harassment standard in this case is very useful to both employers and employees. The new standard is more logical: I agree that threat of termination and subsequent termination after complaining of harassing or discriminatory language is severe and should be considered harassment and/or discrimination. I believe that this will be a landmark decision in employment law.

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