Harris v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 09-1446 (4th Cir. May 6, 2011)

By Paul Mollica

Though you won’t find this in the official advance sheets (it is officially non-precedential), it is nice to see yet another case holding that a sexually-hostile work environment may violate Title VII, even if it is not targeted at a particular female employee.

Harris v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 09-1446 (4th Cir. May 6, 2011): Harris, a motor shop employee for the city, reported a boys’-club working environment, which allegations made up the main part of her case:

“While in the shop, Harris was repeatedly subjected to profane, sexually explicit language. Harris was referred to as a ‘bitch’ by her coworkers in the presence of her supervisor. J.A. 554. Harris also overheard male employees refer to other women as ‘bitches’ on a daily basis. J.A. 615. Others confirmed the frequent use of such offensive language. Judy Coleman, a supervisor at the Back River plant where Harris worked, heard male technicians refer to women using the ‘B word’ and the ‘C word.’ J.A. 386-88. Kevin Lee, another co-worker, confirmed that male employees referred to women as ‘bitches’ and that there was ‘a [whole lot of that going on.’ J.A. 442. Male employees also referred to women, including Harris, as ‘troublemakers’ who ‘didn’t belong in those jobs.’ J.A. 389-90, 405, 616. According to Coleman, the use of such language increased when females came within earshot.”

The plaintiff also reported daily conversations between male co-workers about their sexual exploits (real or imagined – the record apparently does not say) and pornography on public display.

Plaintiff complained to the city and her union about the environment but not apparent avail. Allegedly, “[a]t one point [union representative] Williams objected to th[e] language [referring to women as ‘bitches’] and [co-worker] Sutton responded by asking [supervisor] Slayton whether there was any policy prohibiting him from using the word ‘bitch.’ Slayton replied that there was not, and Sutton continued.”

The district court granted summary judgment on the Title VII sex harassment claim, and Harris appealed, supported by amici curiae EEOC and a host of progressive legal organizations. The Fourth Circuit reverses (actually, a two-judge panel, as one of the original panel died before the opinion issued). It rejects the argument that the alleged harassment must be directed at a particular woman to be actionable under Title VII:

“To satisfy this element, Harris points to the use of profane, sexually explicit language by her co-workers, as well as the pictures of nude or scantily clad women throughout the shop. We recently clarified that ‘[a] juror could reasonably find that sexualizing the work environment by placing photos of nude women or women in sexually provocative dress and poses in common areas is detrimental to female employees and satisfies the ‘because of sex’ requirement.’ We recognized that ‘the critical inquiry is whether the plaintiff’s environment was hostile . . . ‘because of’ her sex’ and not solely on whether the conduct was directed at the plaintiff.” [Citations omitted.]

The panel also holds that the record demonstrated that a jury could find this environment objectively and subjectively hostile to women in general, and Harris in particular.

“A reasonable jury, looking at the entirety of the circumstances, could find that the shop area was an environment where hostility towards female employees pervaded the attitudes and conduct of co-workers and supervisors. Women were regularly referred to as ‘bitches,’ ‘c—s,’ and ‘troublemakers.’ In a meeting with Harris’s union representative, a male co-worker repeatedly referred to Harris as a ‘bitch without condemnation by Harris’s supervisor, who was also present. Discussions between co-workers about ‘women’s anatomy in a sexual manner’ and sexual activity with women occurred regularly. J.A. 618-19. We believe that a reasonable jury could find this type of profane language ‘particularly offensive to women.'”

Seemingly, there was no argument by the city on appeal about the adequacy of their corrective measures. Can only wonder why.