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A national education on hostile work environment

The US presidential election campaign has created a national dialogue about what it takes to create a hostile work environment and could change judges' perspectives on the issue, writes trial lawyer Reuben Guttman.


Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act generally proscribes employment discrimination based on an individual’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The breadth of the law’s proscriptions, the burdens of proof and the facts needed to prove a violation have, over the years, been the subject of much litigation.

Twenty two years after Title VII’s passage, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Meritor Savings v. Vinson, 477 US 57 (1986).  In Meritor, the Court established a cause of action under Title VII for gender discrimination where an employee has been subject to a “hostile work environment.” In issuing its Opinion, the Court quoted the decision of the United States Court of Appeals in Henson v. Dundee, 682 F.2d 897, 902 (11th Cir. 1982):“Sexual harassment which creates a hostile or offensive environment for members of one sex is every bit the arbitrary barrier to sexual equality in the workplace that racial harassment is to racial equality. Surely, a requirement that a man or a woman run a gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and make a living can be as demeaning and disconcerting as the harshest of racial epithets.” In Meritor, the Court noted that the alleged conduct was “not only pervasive but also criminal conduct of the most serious nature.”

While Meritor established the doctrine of “hostile work environment,” it failed to establish a bright line test for liability and even today’s guidance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the Agency charged with enforcing Title VII – is ambiguous. The guidance states that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.” The guidance also says that “to be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.”

If this guidance is ambiguous, think about its application when juxtaposed against the pleading standards established by the Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 US 554 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 US 662 (2009). Those cases allow a trial court judge to look at the facts and determine whether a claim is “plausible.” In Iqbal, the Court explained that in determining plausibility, the “reviewing court” may draw upon its “judicial experience” and “common sense.” The Court also explained that “the plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability standard,” but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” 

Common sense? The plausibility standard is subjective and undoubtedly may be influenced by a judge’s experiences and personal environment. And yet, as subjective as the standard is, it is the standard that allows judge’s to be the gatekeepers for the procession of claims of discrimination to proceed to discovery and perhaps trial.

Over the past several weeks neither the courts not Congress have issued an opinion or passed any law changing the way hostile work environment cases are viewed. Yet, it may be that events outside of the court room and the legislative arena have changed forever our perspective on these claims and perhaps – maybe perhaps – provided judges with a new perspective when evaluating the “plausibility” of a claim.

The release of a tape of presidential candidate Donald Trump extolling his sexual exploits, a dialogue about this same subject during a Presidential debate watched by 80 million people and news reports of women who were allegedly groped or kissed by Mr Trump has led to a national dialogue about sexual harassment. Weighing in on the subject, First Lady Michelle Obama captured the attention of the nation when she told New Hampshire voters: “And I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”

Whether each allegation is true, the 2016 election will go down to the wire with a national dialogue about how much – or rather how little – it takes to poison an environment with hostile language or unwanted contact. It is a dialogue tantamount to an education campaign given by alleged victims, commentators and advocacy group leaders. For those judges who are tuned into their TV sets, perhaps their perspective on the plausibility of a claim of hostile work environment will forever be changed.    

Reuben Guttman is a trial lawyer and founding partner at Washington, DC-based firm Guttman, Buschner & Brooks.

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17 October 2016

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