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
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, addressed whether an employer’s pension contribution rules may constitute age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Baltimore County, –F.3d. — (4th Cir. 2010). The unanimous opinion was written by Judge Dennis Shed, and was joined by Judge Roger Gregory and Arther L. Alarcon (Senior Judge on Ninth Circuit, sitting by designation).
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?
Sexual harassment claims frequently require judges and juries to distinguish between “merely crude” behavior, which doesn’t violate the employee’s rights, and “sexual harassment”, which does. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed that issue in EEOC v. Fairbrook Medical Clinic, PA, 609 F.3d 320 (4th Cir. 2010) (opinion at Fourth Circuit’s site), and didn’t have a lot of trouble concluding that the conduct in issue could reasonably be viewed by a jury as sexual harassment, ruling in favor of the employee. One of the key issues was whether the conduct was “severe or pervasive” enough to constitute a “hostile work environment”. The unanimous opinion was written Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, joined by Judges Andre M. Davis and C. Arlen Beam (from the Eighth Circuit).
Doctor on Doctor Harassment at Fairbrook Medical Clinic
Dr. John Kessel was the owner of Fairbrook Medical Clinic in South Carolina, and was accused by a former female doctor at the clinic, Dr. Deborah Waechter, of sexually harassing her. Dr. Kessel was Dr. Waechter’s supervisor. Dr. Waechter worked for him for 3 years and quit, allegedly over a broad range of sexually explicit statements made during most of those 3 years (I’ll discuss the specifics below).
Dr. Waechter’s Lawsuit
Dr. Waechter then filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that Dr. Kessel’s behavior created a “hostile work environment”, and the EEOC then filed suit on behalf of Dr. Waechter against Dr. Kessel’s clinic under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
After discovery was conducted. Fairbrook Medical Clinic filed a motion for summary judgment, and the federal trial judge granted it. The trial judge reasoned that the offensive conduct was “not particularly frequent,” mostly involved “the type of crude jokes that do not run afoul of Title VII,” did not cause Dr. Waechter to miss work or feel “severe psychological stress,” and did not include inappropriate touching or physical threats.
Continue reading Was the boss “merely crude”, or was he sexually harassing her?