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Hoyle v. Freightliner, LLC, No. 09-2024 (4th Cir. Apr. 1, 2011)

From the Fourth Circuit, here's a decision reminding district courts that the summary judgment standard allows all employment discrimination cases - the weak with the strong - to go to trial, provided that there are genuine issues of material fact for a jury or bench trial to resolve. Here, the panel finds that the district court read too much into the Fourth Circuit's Title VII precedent on sex harassment, and that the degree of severe-or-pervasive behavior is quite often a fact issue suited to a trial. (And the plaintiff, helpfully, got an assist here from the Appellate Division of the EEOC as amicus.)

From the Fourth Circuit, here's a decision reminding district courts that the summary judgment standard allows all employment discrimination cases - the weak with the strong - to go to trial, provided that there are genuine issues of material fact for a jury or bench trial to resolve. Here, the panel finds that the district court read too much into the Fourth Circuit's Title VII precedent on sex harassment, and that the degree of severe-or-pervasive behavior is quite often a fact issue suited to a trial. (And the plaintiff, helpfully, got an assist here from the Appellate Division of the EEOC as amicus.)

Hoyle v. Freightliner, LLC, No. 09-2024 (4th Cir. Apr. 1, 2011): The present case originated at a truck assembly plant, where women reportedly made up fewer than 10% of the employees. The employee, an off-line mechanic, reported incidents commencing in spring of 2005 through her termination in December of that year. The first hostile act was discovering "a tampon tied to a key ring on a truck in her work area." When she duly reported this incident, her supervisor allegedly "concluded that he did not know who placed the tampon on the truck and told Hoyle not to make 'a fuss about it' because 'that . . . would just make them act out even more.' To Hoyle's knowledge, no action was taken by Freightliner in response to her complaint."

Thereafter followed a string of instances of male co-workers posting (on their work boxes, in common areas and as a computer "screen-saver") images of sexually-suggestive, nude and semi-clad women. Her complaints about the pictures seldom led to corrective measures. She was fired in December 2005, a decision that the company attributed to plaintiff's absenteeism. She filed an EEOC charge and, eventually, a civil action. Plaintiff's complaints about the alleged sex harassment and her eventual termination (for sex and retaliation) were all dismissed on summary judgment.

The Fourth Circuit reverses the decision on the harassment claim. The panel isolates three errors:

1. The district court judge held that the plaintiff could not prove, as a matter of law, that the conduct was "because of sex." The panel holds -citing two district court opinions and the EEOC amicus - 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." In particular, the panel notes that the tampon incident was evidently targeted at the plaintiff (or possibly at her female co-worker).

2. The district court held that the behavior was not subjectively and objectively "severe or pervasive," citing prior Fourth Circuit decisions that appeared to describe even worse circumstances. The panel holds that the issue is too sensitive to factual circumstances to be decided as a matter of law:

"Our conclusion in this regard is informed by our firm conviction that the district court misapplied the appropriate summary judgment standard in concluding that Hoyle failed to generate a genuine dispute of material fact on the issue of whether the complained-of incidents and displays satisfied the 'severe or pervasive' standard. . . . [Even] assuming that other [prior Fourth Circuit] cases involve more heinous behavior in male dominated workplaces than that shown here, we have never held that a weak case is necessarily one that should be disposed of on summary judgment. The question at the summary judgment stage is not whether a jury is sure to find a verdict for the plaintiff; the question is whether a reasonable jury could rationally so find" (emphasis in original).

3. Finally, the district court believed that the record conclusively established that the employer observed due care in correcting sex harassment by co-workers. The panel holds that this issue, too, is for the jury: "Hoyle notified human resources directly after several incidents, and Freightliner acknowledges receiving complaints from Hoyle 'centered around inappropriate material' in the workplace. Indeed, Hoyle's supervisor, Hopper, maintained on his office wall one of the calendars about which Hoyle complained, see supra p. 5, although Hopper removed it after Hoyle complained. Id. Moreover, a reasonable juror could conclude that Freightliner did not promptly or effectively enforce its own anti-harassment policies based on its repeated failure to investigate."

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