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11th Circuit Unanimously Endorses Hostile Work Environment Claim

Posted: March 10, 2010 Filed under: Uncategorized

Ingrid Reeves, a former employee of C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., scored a pivotal victory in a decision unanimously endorsed by all 11 judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The circuit court reversed a lower court’s ruling that dismissed Ms. Reeves’s hostile work environment claim on the basis that the derogatory language she endured at work was not directed at her in particular. A hostile work environment is a form of prohibited discrimination when the hostility relates to a protected classification, such as gender, race, religion, disability, and so on.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. is noteworthy for several reasons:

First, because it involved the entire court rather than the usual panel of three judges;

Second, because of its unanimity;

Third, because of the clarity it brings to the law governing hostile work environment claims, such as clarifying that activities need not be directed at the complaining party in particular and that “disparate treatment” is the proper framework for evaluating hostile work environment claims;

Fourth, because of its frank discussion of the off-color comments and conduct Ms. Reeves endured and to which she repeatedly objected; and,

Fifth, because the court allowed Ms. Reeves to go forward with her case even though she voluntarily resigned her position at C.H. Robinson.

Whether a reasonable person could find the environment hostile or abusive was especially important to Ms. Reeves because a person who voluntarily quits her (or his) employment generally may not sue for prohibited discrimination unless no reasonable person could work in the discriminatory environment.

As is often true in law, context is everything. Thus, the Reeves court prefaced its opinion by saying,

We recite the profane language that allegedly permeated this workplace exactly as it was spoken in order to present and properly examine the social context in which it arose. We do not explicate this vulgar language lightly, but only because its full consideration is essential to measure whether these words and this conduct could be read as having created “an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.” (Citations omitted.)

Although Reeves represents a victory for employees, the Eleventh Circuit was careful to reaffirm broad general rules that impose a rigorous burden of proof on employees suing because of a hostile work environment. For example, the court identified the “bedrock principle” “that not all objectionable conduct or language amounts to discrimination under Title VII.” “[G]eneral vulgarity or references to sex that are indiscriminate in nature will not, standing alone, generally be actionable. Title VII is not a ‘general civility code.’”

Not even harassment between men and women is automatically discrimination when the words used have sexual content or connotations, the court said. Rather, the test is “is whether ‘members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed.’”

According to the Reeves court, several of the core principles of employment discrimination law are:

first, to prove a hostile work environment under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), a plaintiff must show that her employer discriminated because of her membership in a protected group, and that the offensive conduct was either severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms or conditions of employment; second, Title VII is not a civility code, and not all profane or sexual language or conduct will constitute discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment; third, workplace conduct cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather is to be viewed cumulatively, and in its social context; and fourth, a plaintiff can prove a hostile work environment by showing severe or pervasive discrimination directed against her protected group, even if she herself is not individually singled out in the offensive conduct.

Several lessons can be learned from the Reeves decision, including, but not limited to, the following:

• Employees should carefully document all hostile comments and activities that occur in the workplace, including dates, times, persons involved, and names of witnesses;
• Employees should focus on severe and pervasive comments and activities that are both hostile and addressed specifically to a protected group (such as a specific gender, race, religion, the disabled, and so on);
• Employees should read and follow all of the employer’s procedures for raising and complaining about prohibited discrimination and hostile or abusive conduct and comments;
• Employers should listen to employees who raise concerns and complaints and should carefully investigate and, if appropriate, address and remedy, the concerns and complaints registered; and
• Employers should not treat complaining employees differently, should not take adverse employment action against complaining employees without appropriate documentation of the reasons for the adverse action, and should not retaliate against employees who make claims in good faith.

This synopsis of Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. is not intended to be, and should not be considered as, a substitute for reading the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion. Employers and employees alike are likely to find the court’s opinion enlightening and are well advised to heed the court’s instruction.

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