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Hostile work environment may arise from single incident

A Pennsylvania federal appeals court ruled that a single extreme discriminatory act, even if it happens in isolation, may be enough to create a hostile work environment that violates workers' rights. Two men who worked as general laborers filed a lawsuit after a supervisor used a racial slur in discussing the men's work. They complained about the incident to another supervisor and were fired after two weeks without being given an explanation. They were then rehired but let go for what the company claimed was a lack of work.

A trial court dismissed the men's allegations that they had been harassed and retaliated against based on protections offered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, on July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed the decision.

The unanimous decision by the three-judge appeals panel said that while there was inconsistent precedent, several other circuit courts have agreed that a claim of a hostile work environment could be supported by a single incident. According to one attorney who was not involved with the case, the ruling makes a distinction between isolated incidents that may be offensive but do not constitute a hostile work environment versus those in which the use of certain words are particularly offensive and unacceptable.

Laws against workplace discrimination identify a number of protected classes of people. Some of these classes include race, national origin, sex and religion. A person who is facing workplace discrimination may want to document the incidents. An attorney might be able to advise the person as to how best to proceed. For example, the next step could be speaking to a supervisor. If the workplace does not address the issue or the person faces retaliation, a claim filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission might be the next step.

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