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Race discrimination charges vs. staffing agency, oil firm reinstated

Race discrimination charges vs. staffing agency, oil firm reinstated

Even an isolated discriminatory act can create a hostile work environment if it is extreme, says a federal appeals court in reinstating harassment, discrimination and retaliation charges against a staffing agency and oil company.

Atron Castleberry and John Brown, who are black, were hired by San Juan Capistrano, California-based staffing agency STI Group Inc., a subcontractor for Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., as general laborers in March 2010, according to Friday’s ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia in Atron Castleberry; John Brown v. STI Group; Chesapeake Energy Corp.

They alleged that on several occasions, someone had anonymously written, “Don’t be black on the right of way on sign-in sheets,” and that although they have significant experience working on pipelines, they were only permitted to clean around them rather than work on them, according to the ruling.

They also said that when working on a fence-removal project, a supervisor told Mr. Castleberry and his co-workers that they would be fired if they rigged the fence, using as an adjective the ruling referred to as the “n-word” to define rigged.

After the plaintiffs complained about the incident to a supervisor, they were fired two weeks later without explanation. They were rehired shortly afterward, but then terminated for “lack of work.”

The men filed suit in U.S. District Court in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on charges of harassment, discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court dismissed the charges.

A unanimous three-judge appeals court panel reinstated them. “Under the correct ‘severe or pervasive’ standard, the parties dispute whether the supervisor’s single use of the ‘n-word’ is sufficient to state a claim under that standard.

“Although the resolution of that question is context-specific, it is clear that one such instance can suffice to state a claim,” said the ruling.

“Defendants argue that there is no cause in which our Court has held a single isolated incident to constitute a hostile work environment. But they miss the point.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to adopt a ‘severe or pervasive’ standard … lends support that an isolated incident of discrimination (if severe) can suffice to state a claim for harassment,” said the ruling, which remanded the case.

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