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4th Circuit Reverses Dismissal Of Race And Gender Harassment Suit

Published by on August 31, 2009

In a rare published opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the pretrial dismissal of a race and sex harassment lawsuit on summary judgment.  The court’s opinion in EEOC v. Central Wholesalers, Inc. can be found here.  More after the break. The EEOC alleged that plaintiff, an African-American female, was subjected […]

In a rare published opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the pretrial dismissal of a race and sex harassment lawsuit on summary judgment.  The court’s opinion in EEOC v. Central Wholesalers, Inc. can be found here.  More after the break.

The EEOC alleged that plaintiff, an African-American female, was subjected to a hostile work environment based on her gender and race and constructively discharged by her former employer, Central Wholesalers, Inc.  Plaintiff experienced racial and gender epithets from four white male co-workers over a period of two months.  These came in several forms including daily use of obscene and offensive language, workplace viewing of pornography (in magazines, calendars, video, posters, and screensavers), and sexual jokes.  More than once, Medley reported her observations to her supervisor and there was no effect.  The problem persisted even after Central’s President was notified and he held meetings with staff and walked around the work areas to observe the environment.

The district court granted Central’s motion for summary judgment and denied its motion for attorneys’ fees while awarding it costs associated with certain depositions.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the judgment de novo, in the light most favorable to the EEOC.  In order for a reversal of the district court, the EEOC was required to establish that the evidence viewed in its favor “would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the harassment was (1) unwelcome, (2) based on Medley’s gender or race, (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive atmosphere, and (4) imputable to Central.”

The EEOC established all four elements, leading to a reversal of the district court.  First, the court found that the gender and race based harassment was unwelcome because plaintiff complained about both types of harassment to her co-workers, supervisors, and Central’s President.  She told them she found both types objectionable.  Second, several incidents indicated the gender and race based nature of the harassment.  One or more of Medley’s co-workers used the word b***h on a regular basis, had Playboy items around the office, and watched pornography in her presence such that she could hear the sounds of sex from her cubicle.  Furthermore, they used the word n****r in her presence on a regular basis, while two workers in particular kept “blue colored mop-head dolls in their offices and had the dolls hanging from nooses which were tied around the dolls’ necks.”  Third, the court concluded that the circumstances met both the subjective and objective inquiries of the severe or pervasive test.  Finally, they held there was a basis for imposing liability because Central knew “but did not ‘respond with remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment.'”

Delving more deeply into the final point, the court highlighted several instances when Central tried to address to the issue and proved ineffective.  They noted that Central could have terminated, demoted, suspended, or reduced the pay of the workers in question.  For instance, the pornographic screensaver was not removed for over a week and a half after the complaint.  Medley’s supervisor did not take any action on the initial complaints about co-workers using the word n****r.  Central took no action to address the report of the blue dolls hanging by a noose.  Central’s President also took no action in response to the use of the word n****r other than mentioning generally that the company would not tolerate racial slurs, as part of a meeting held to address profanity.  Lastly, the court noticed that the “nature of the harassment experienced by [plaintiff] also became more severe in some respects after she started complaining” and reporting the incidents as the anti-harassment policy suggested.

Contributed by K.C. Osuji

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