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Single Racial Epithet with Termination Equals §1981 Hostile Work Environment

Two African-American men were hired as workers for Chesapeake Energy via the STI Group staffing agency. They were the only two black workers on the job site. On several occasions, the sign in sheets had “don’t be black on the right of way” written on them. Although both men had significant experience working on pipelines, they were only permitted to clean around them. While working on a fence-removal project, a supervisor told them that if they had “ni**er-rigged” the fence, they would be fired. They complained. Two weeks later, they were fired without any explanation.

They sued both STI Group and Chesapeake Energy under Section 1981, which essentially forbids race discrimination in the making of public and private contracts. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of the men to pursue their claims. In so doing, the court clarified its precedent on the issue of whether harassment had to be “pervasive and regular.” Plaintiffs must show that the hostile work environment to which they were subjected was “severe or pervasive.” This standard had been established by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under that standard, a single use of the “n-word” can be sufficient to state a claim. Context will be key. Plaintiffs must show that the single incident was severe enough to create a “change in the terms and conditions of employment.” In the incident alleged, the racial epithet with a threat of termination could be found severe enough to create a hostile work environment.