New Hostile Work Environment Decision from the 11th Circuit

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Georgia employment law, recently stuck up for anyone, especially women, who have to listen to endless trash- talking and vulgarities in the workplace.

The case, Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide (11th Cir en banc 01/20/2010), involved a female plaintiff who claimed that she suffered a gender- based hostile work environment. The trial court had found for the defendant.

Reeves’ evidence was essentially that working at Robinson subjected employees to a continual stream of vulgarities from co- workers, although only some of the vulgarity was gender- specific. The trial court apparently held that an endless stream of vulgarities wasn’t gender- based if only a portion of them were specifically directed at females.

The language was also apparently directed at everyone within earshot, and the trial court had held that Reeves did not have a Title VII cause of action unless the vulgarities were specifically directed at her.

The 11th overturned the lower court in every regard. During her testimony, Reeves had established that at least some of the derogatory language was directed at the general female population.

The decision has all of the harsh language in it, but we’ll leave that out for this blog. Read the case if you want to see what the language actually was.

Nevertheless, the court specifically held that certain words are more degrading to women than they are to men. The court said, “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. Title VII does not offer boorish employers a free pass to discriminate against their employees specifically on account of gender just because they have tolerated pervasive but indiscriminate profanity as well.”

The court concluded that, “words and conduct that are sufficiently gender-specific and either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even if the words are not directed specifically at the plaintiff.”

In striking a blow for propriety, the court has really expanded the idea of what can constitute a hostile work environment. If you feel that you are being subjected to this kind of behavior in the workplace, please contact us for an evaluation of your situation.