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One Strike and You’re Out—Third Circuit Holds a Single Severe Incident Sufficient to Establish a Harassment Claim
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held on July 14, 2017 that a single severe incident of harassment may give rise to a claim of workplace harassment in Castleberry v. STI Group, No. 16-3131 (3d Cir. 2017).
Castleberry and his co-Plaintiff alleged that their supervisor used the “n-word” with them and, in the same breath, threatened to terminate them. They were terminated several weeks later. Because the Plaintiffs could not point to a pattern of harassment, the District Court dismissed their claim.
In reversing, the Third Circuit observed that it had muddied the waters in its prior rulings on this subject, holding that harassment must be “severe and pervasive,” “severe or pervasive,” or “pervasive and regular.” In Castleberry, the Court clarified the standard as “severe or pervasive.” This means that an employee can bring a harassment claim with a single event that is so severe as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment. Previously employees had to show that harassment was both severe and pervasive—meaning that it formed an ongoing pattern of harassment.
While only extremely severe single incidents of harassment are likely to be found actionable by the courts, employers must be vigilant. Employers should have adequate personnel policies in place and a strong training regimen. Also, severe incidents of harassment tend to happen in environments where low-level harassment is tolerated.