Sexual Harassment Claim Based on Raunchy Radio Listening Leads to Liability
A female employee who quit her job when her employer failed to respond to her complaints about the offensive conduct of her male co-workers will see her day in court. A federal appeals court revived the sexual harassment claims, which alleged that the employer permitted the co-workers to enjoy the risqué humor on a daily radio and did nothing to stop the crude derogatory terms often employed when discussing women.
The outcome in Reeves v. C.H. Worldwide Transportation, Inc. (click the link for full-text of the opinon), seems to have surprised some employment law bloggers, including the Ohio Employment Law Blog, one of our favorite e-law blogs.
I think the outcome is consistent with prior cases.
The employee, who was the only woman in her work group, was offended by being subjected to her co-workers’ choice of a daily morning radio show that featured sexually explicit content. They ignored her complaints to them and to her supervisor about the program, which included topics graphic enough not to post.
In addition, commercials broadcast during the program featured: “sexual favors; a bikini contest that instructed women to wear their most perverse bikinis; . . . a drug called Proton that promised to increase sexual performance, please a partner, and make the user a “’sexual tyrannosaurus rex.’”
The employee also complained about her male co-workers’ frequent use of the words “whore,” “bitch” and other, more colorful terms to describe women they disliked. And, all the while they continuously usedl sexually explicit “language, phrases, jokes, songs, comments, [and] remarks.”
Trial Court Finds "Not Based on Sex"
The district court granted judgment in favor of the employer, deciding that the harassment was not “based on” sex, since all the workers in the office were subjected to the same working conditions, and since the offensive conduct was not expressly “directed at” Reeves. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.
Appellate Court Finds the Conduct Did Not Have to Be "Directed At" the Employee
In its decision, the Court of Appeals relied on a prior decision involving racial harassment. In that case, the Court held that racially derogatory language did not have to be “directed at” the complaining employee in order to create a racially hostile workplace. Similarly, said the court in Reeves, found that sexually derogatory language did not have to be directed at the complaining female employee. The degrading nature of the language could be sufficient to satisfy the requirement that the harassment be “based on” sex.
The court also held that Reeves had produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the harassment met the “severe or pervasive” requirement. The court noted that the offensive sex-specific language and the radio program were near daily occurrences for almost three years, (at which point Reeves quit). So the frequency of the conduct favored Reeves’ claim.
On the other hand, while the language was offensive, it was not directed at Reeves herself and therefore the court did not deem the conduct to be especially severe. Further, the conduct was not physically threatening to Reeves. But, it was objectively humiliating to her, particularly in light of evidence that Reeves’ male co-workers knew that their conduct made her uncomfortable but did not stop it.
Finally, there was evidence that the conduct interfered with Reeves’ work. She testified that at times the conduct made it difficult for her to concentrate on her work and she would have to leave the room. She also had to take time away from her work to ask her co-workers and supervisor to stop the offensive conduct, and to make notes for herself about what had happened.
Since Reeves had presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to decide in her favor, the court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
Some commentators have expressed doubt as to the soundness of the court’s reasoning, especially in light of the possibility that the conduct was not actually “directed at” the lone female employee in the group. As the court noted, Reeves’ co-workers knew that she found their conduct to be offensive. But they continued to engage in it despite that knowledge.
These are the types of activities we routinely counsel our clients not to permit, and this case illustrates why we give that advice.