A few days ago, I posted my article on PAR Electrical Contractors, Inc. v. Bevelle , in which the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a single episode involving multiple uses of the N-word could create a racially hostile work environment.
The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit just released an opinion in Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority, – F.3d –, – WL — (7th Cir. August 23, 2010), which raises the similar issue: Can a single instance of sexual harassment create a hostile work environment? And the answer was yes, depending on the circumstances.
Ms. Berry is Sexually Harassed in a Single Incident
Cynthia Berry was an employee at the Chicago Transit Authority. She was on her break and sat at a picnic style table with three male co-workers. A fourth male co-worker, Philip Carmichael, had followed her to the picnic area and ordered Ms. Berry to get up from the table. Offended by Mr. Carmichael’s “commanding tone”, Ms. Berry remained seated. Mr. Carmichael then sat down and “straddled the bench” so he was facing one of the male co-workers at the picnic table, and so that Mr. Carmichael’s back was close to Ms. Berry. The other three male co-workers got up from where they were seated at the picnic table and moved to the other end of the table. Then:
Berry says Carmichael remained where he was seated and began rubbing his back against her shoulder. She jumped up, told him not to rub himself against her, and sat down next to Hardy at the other end of the table. At this point,
Berry says, Marshall began telling her to get up from the table again. Not wanting Marshall to think he could order her around, she remained seated, but began rubbing her temples to compose herself. According to Berry, she next felt Carmichael grabbing her breasts and lifting her up from the bench. Holding her in the air, he rubbed her buttocks against the front of his body—from his chest to his penis—three times before bringing her to the ground with force. Berry landed off-balance, with only one leg on the ground, and says Carmichael then pushed her into a fence. Upset and wanting to avoid any men, she lay down in a bus for the rest of her shift.
Continue reading Single act may create hostile work environment, according to Seventh Circuit in Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority
Okay, this article has nothing to do with Dr. Laura Schlessinger and her “rant” in which she used the N-word repeatedly on her radio program when responding to an African-American caller. But the ensuing controversy (see articles for and against Dr. Laura), and her decision to end her long-running radio program, highlight the extraordinary significance of the N-word term in American society.
The West Virginia Supreme Court recently dealt with the N-word in a case that highlights the great risks for employers when that word enters the workplace.
In PAR Electrical Contractors, Inc. v. Bevelle , — W. Va. –, — S.E.2d –, 2010 WL 2244096 (June 3, 2010) (per curiam), the West Virginia Supreme Court dealt with a claim of a racially based hostile work environment under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, and concluded that the West Virginia Human Rights Commission was justified in finding for the employee. The decision was unanimous. Click here for the WV Human Rights Commission‘s decision which was affirmed by the WV Supreme Court.
A Single Day, With the N-Word Again and Again
PAR Electrical was building “giant towers” for a high voltage electrical transmission line. Richard Wayne Bevelle was hired by PAR Electrical on March 22, 2005, and, after working as a “groundman” assembling the tower bases, was assigned to load helicopters with parts to construct the towers (this helicopter job was described as a “gravy job” by the Human Rights Commission). Mr. Bevelle is African-American.
Continue reading The disastrous consequences of the N-word in the workplace. Just ask Dr. Laura!
I will be speaking (and presenting articles) at a seminar sponsored by Sterling Education Services on October 20, 2010 in Morgantown, West Virginia, entitled “Fundamentals of Employment Law”.
I will be speaking (and presenting articles) on “Sexual, Racial, and Other Harassment in the Workplace” and “ADA and FMLA Update”.
Here is the full agenda, and here is the faculty information. The seminar will provide around 6-8 hours of continuing education credit for lawyers (I don’t know the exact number, but the seminar is a full day).
You can register for the the seminar online. For further information, you can contact Sterling, and their number is 715-855-0498.
The West Virginia Supreme Court recently issued an opinion dealing with one of those stereotypically awkward situations, where an employee allegedly stumbles into a room where the boss is having sex with a co-worker. The decision was Roth v. DeFeliceCare, Inc., — W. Va. –, – S.E.2d –, 2010 WL 2346248 (June 8, 2010) (per curiam). It was a 3-2 decision, in which the 3-vote majority consisted of Justices Robin Davis, Margaret Workman, and Thomas McHugh. Justices Menis Ketchum and Brent Benjamin dissented, and Justice Ketchum wrote a dissenting opinion.
The Facts–Sex at Work
These are the facts according to the complaint in the lawsuit: Tricia Roth was a respiratory therapist working at DeFeliceCare, Inc. in Ohio County, West Virginia, and she was about to go on vacation. She was directed by Leslie DeFelice (the male boss/owner) to come to work sometime during the weekend preceding her vacation in June 2006. She was not told a specific time to come to work during that weekend. When she came to work as ordered, she “observed Defendant [Leslie] DeFelice and/or Michelle Kelly partially clothed and in a compromising position”. Mr. DeFelice instructed Ms. Roth to go into a conference room and wait–meanwhile Mr. DeFelice and the other employee got all their clothes back on. Mr. DeFelice then talked to Ms. Roth and told her to forget about what she had just seen, and threatened Ms. Ross with the loss of her respiratory therapy license and the loss of her employment.
Ms. Roth then went on vacation. When she got back from vacation and returned to work, she had a meeting with Mr. DeFelice that didn’t go well. Ms. Roth told Mr. DeFelice that she hadn’t told anyone about his sexual encounter at work. Mr. DeFelice proceeded to fire Ms. Roth because “he did not like how she was dressed” and “he did not like the style[/]color of her hair”.
Ms. Roth Files Suit–Case Dismissed
Ms. Roth then filed suit on legal theories centering around sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and–bada bing!–the case promptly got dismissed.
Ms. Roth’s complaint (the document which starts the lawsuit and describes the plaintiff’s allegations) focused on the sexual incident I have described above, but also made allegations about other sexual harassment–I will discuss those details below.
Continue reading Sorry boss, I didn’t know you were having sex in the office!!
It might be obvious, but it seems a bit difficult to win on a claim for sexual harassment where all of the harassment occurs behind your back (and by “behind your back”, I mean situations where the harassing behavior occurs when the complaining employee is not physically present to experience or hear what is happening).
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed this issue in Pueschel v. Peters, 577 F.3d 558 (4th Cir. 2009), in a unanimous decision written by Judge Roger Gregory in which Judges M. Blane Michael and Robert Bruce King joined.
The Fourth Circuit didn’t have much difficulty reaching the conclusion that, for any claim alleging a hostile work environment (including sexual harassment), you can’t succeed if all of the misconduct about which you complain occurred at work when you were not at work.
Twenty Eight Years of Litigation!!!
This case grows out of an incredibly long history of litigation (including several different lawsuits and appeals (some of which were successful)) filed by Ms. Pueschel against her employer, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). The litigation started in 1981 and ended with this Fourth Circuit decision in 2009 (I am not kidding, and I am not sure this decision marks the end of all of her litigation).
Continue reading Can you be sexually harassed behind your back?
October 25, 2007: In Colgan Air, Inc. v. West Virginia Human Rights Commission, 221 W. Va. 588, 656 S.E.2d 33 (1977) the West Virginia Supreme Court addressed claims of harassment (based on religion and national origin) and retaliation under the WV Human Rights Act, W. Va. Code § 5-11-1 et seq.
The plaintiff was a pilot, Rao Zahid Khan, who alleged that his co-workers subjected him to frequent derogatory and insulting comments about his national origin and religion (he was Arabic). The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Colgan Air (a) was not liable for harassment because it had policies and procedures prohibiting harassment and took swift and decisive action after learning about the harassment, and (b) was not liable for retaliation because Colgan Air terminated the employee (Mr. Khan) for a legitimate and non-discriminatory reason–he failed to pass a mandatory FAA proficiency test for pilots.
Continue reading WV Supreme Court rules that employer’s policy and prompt action protected it against liability; Colgan Air v WV HRC; 10/25/07