A Word To The Wise: Castleberry v. STI Group And The Expansion Of Liability For Hostile Work Environments

by Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law

In David Lynch’s film Dune, a character proclaims that the protagonist “can kill with a word.”  Although not quite as dramatic, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently held that an employer can violate federal civil rights statutes with a word.  Specifically, in Castleberry v. STI Group, the Third Circuit held that a single use of the “n-word” is sufficiently severe to establish a hostile work environment for purposes of a racial harassment claim.  The court held that in hostile work environment cases, the proper legal standard is not whether the conduct in question is “pervasive and regular,” but rather “severe or pervasive.”  Thus, a single incident, if severe enough, can, in and of itself, create an actionable hostile work environment claim.

The plaintiffs in Castleberry were two black laborers who were supervised by managers from both Chesapeake Energy Corporation and STI Group, a staffing agency that the court deemed a Chesapeake subcontractor.  Upon the plaintiffs’ assignment to a job site, the only other black male on the crew was fired.  On several occasions thereafter, someone had written “don’t be black on the right of way” on the sign-in sheets.  Additionally, the plaintiffs were not permitted to work on the actual pipelines — despite the fact that they had more experience working on pipelines than their coworkers — and were instead relegated to cleaning up around them.  Furthermore, when working on a fence-removal project, the plaintiffs alleged that a supervisor told the first-named plaintiff, Atron Castleberry, “that if they had ‘n—– rigged’ the fence, they would be fired,” an incident that seven coworkers confirmed.  Within two weeks of reporting this latter incident, the plaintiffs were terminated without explanation.  They were rehired, but then fired again for “lack of work.”

The plaintiffs filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1981, a federal civil rights statute which provides in relevant part:  “All persons . . . shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts . . . to the full and equal benefit of all laws . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.”  The trial court, however, dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, holding that they had failed to plead that the discrimination was “pervasive and regular.”  On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed.  Acknowledging its own inconsistent body of law, the appellate court held that the proper test for alleging, and ultimately proving, a violation of federal civil rights laws based upon a hostile work environment is “severe or pervasive.”

Thus, that standard having been established, the specific question before the court was “whether the supervisor’s single use of the ‘n-word’ is adequately ‘severe’ and if one isolated incident is sufficient to state a claim under that standard.”  Having raised the question, the Third Circuit promptly answered it, holding that “it is clear that one such instance can suffice to state a claim.”  This is particularly true when, as in this case, “the use of the word was accompanied by threats of termination (which ultimately occurred).”  To put it succinctly:  “This constitutes severe conduct that could create a hostile work environment.”


In reaching its decision, the Third Circuit followed similar outcomes in the Fourth, Seventh, Eleventh, and District of Columbia Circuits.  As such, Castleberry adds impetus for other courts to reach the same conclusion, thereby moving away from the traditional perspective that stray or singular comments were generally insufficient to establish a harassment claim based upon a hostile work environment.  Furthermore, although there are few words more pernicious or negatively charged than the “n-word,” there is little reason to think that courts would not apply similar reasoning to gender-based, religious, disability or other forms of discrimination claims involving especially egregious epithets.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon employers to emphasize – and actually enforce – the zero-tolerance aspect of their antidiscrimination policies.  Employers must not succumb to the temptation to downplay or dismiss stray comments as aberrational or unintentional and instead wait for reports of further misconduct.  As Castleberry illustrates, one incident, if severe, is enough to warrant employer action, including discharge of the offending employee; the failure to act, or retaliating for a complaint, may expose the employer to liability.  Contrary to the wisdom shared with us as children, in the workplace, words – or in this case, a single word – can indeed be hurtful, not only to their intended target, but to an employer as well.

To read the full decision, please click here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.