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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hostile Environment Claim not Taken Seriously

















Alabama@Work
By Tommy Eden, Attorney

In Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., (11th Circuit Jan. 20, 2010), Court of vacated summary judgment and remanded for trial a Title VII claim that generalized hostility to women may create a hostile work environment, even though not specifically targeted at a particular female employee.

Ingrid Reeves was employed as a transportation sales representative for C.H. Robinson, a shipping company. She worked the telephones setting up sales appointments and managed shipping freight. Reeves was the only woman working sales in an open floor area with cubicles with six male co-workers. There were no large barriers between the cubicles and she would often hear her male co-workers as they spoke over the phone or with each other.

Use of vulgar and generally offensive language by these male employees was commonplace at C.H. Robinson; everyday referred to female co-workers with derogatory language throughout the day; frequently viewed pornography and frequently tuned the office radio to a crude morning show. Reeves verbally objected to the crude language, conduct and radio station to her male co-workers and would change the radio station when she heard offensive topics on the radio. Reeves said that she told them that their language was offensive, first orally and then by e-mail. In spite of her pleas, the male co-workers’ offensive behavior persisted unabated. On a number of occasions Reeves also formally complained to upper management.

Reeves later resigned and filed an EEOC complaint, alleging that the sexually offensive language created a hostile work environment. The federal district judge granted summary judgment to C.H. Robinson, dismissing the case finding that the offensive conduct was not motivated by Reeves’ sex, because the derogatory language was not directed at her in particular.

The 11th Circuit overturned the federal judge and said Reeves is entitled to have her claims heard by a jury, reasoning that a member of a protected group cannot be forced to endure pervasive, derogatory conduct and references that are gender-specific in the workplace just because the workplace may be otherwise rife with generally indiscriminate vulgar conduct. The evidence supported both general indiscriminate vulgarity and gender-specific derogatory comments made about women on account of their sex. The 11th Circuit held that a jury reasonably could find that it was a workplace that exposed Reeves to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex were not exposed.

Common Sense Counsel: It is well settled that hostile work environment harassment occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Having a well written anti-harassment and professional conduct policy, annual company wide employee training on that policy, prompt and effective investigation of complaints and taking proper remedial action are all keys to a good HR risk reduction program.


Tommy Eden is a Lee County native, an attorney with the local office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork.com