The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that an alleged harasser who makes gender-specific slurs and comments can create a hostile work environment for a female employee, even though the harasser is an “Equal Opportunity Harasser” who makes sexually offensive remarks to “anybody, any time.” EEOC v. Fairbrook Medical Clinic, P.A., 4th Circ., No. 09-1610, June 18, 2010.
Dr. Deborah Waechter was employed at Fairbrook Medical Clinic, which is owned and run by Dr. John Kessel. During her employment, Waechter was the target of a number of remarks by Kessel having to do with her body, her sexual relationship with her husband, and Kessler’s self-label as a “breast man.” In addition, Kessler made crude jokes to both the men and the women in the office, and reveled in being a “shock jock” who made outrageous remarks to both male and female employees. Waechter ultimately resigned her position and filed a lawsuit against Fairbrook. The lower court granted summary judgment for Fairbrook, dismissing Waechter’s claims with a finding that Kessler’s conduct was not based on Waechter’s gender and was not “severe,” and that it was not uncommon in a medical setting to use off-color jokes to “ease the tension.” The Fourth Circuit disagreed with and reversed that determination.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination “because of sex.” The purpose of this prohibition, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, is to “strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment.” In order to establish a violation of Title VII, an employee must show that the complained-of conduct was unwelcome, was based on her sex, was sufficiently “severe and pervasive” to alter the conditions of her employment and create an “abusive work environment” that was attributable to the employer.
In this case, Fairbrook argued that Kessel did not make the inappropriate remarks to Waechter because of her sex, and argued that Kessel was a generally crude person who made vulgar comments to men and women alike. The Fourth Circuit dismissed that contention, stating that although Kessel made offensive remarks to both men and women, his use of sex-specific and derogatory terms indicated that he intended to demean women. Further, the Court pointed out that Kessel’s proposals of sexual activity were not of the type that would have been made to someone of the same sex, as they involved breast pumping and “wild” sex after pregnancy. Based on these remarks, a jury could reasonably conclude that the purpose of Kessel’s comments was to embarrass and discomfit a woman in his employ.
The Court then addressed the issue of whether Kessler’s comments created an objectively hostile environment. In response to Fairbrook’s argument that employees in a medical clinic deal with human bodies every day and therefore have a more casual response to anatomical references and jokes, the Court responded that Kessel’s remarks went beyond merely crude behavior when they “ventured into highly personal territory,” including Waechter’s pregnancy, her body, and her personal life with her husband. The Court refused to accept the argument that because a medical setting deals with human anatomy on a regular basis, it is somehow “liberated from professional norms.” The Court determined that a jury could find that Kessel’s behavior was sufficiently severe and pervasive to establish an objectively hostile work environment.
While Fairbrook attempted to assert the affirmative defense available to employers since the Supreme Court’s decisions in Faragher and Ellerth in 2008, it was unable to show that it “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior.” The clinic never conducted an investigation or took any other corrective actions, in spite of the fact that Waechter complained to Kessel – the owner – on several occasions, and to at least one other manager.
This case raises a number of issues of which employers should be aware. First, the “Equal Opportunity Harasser” defense is not applicable if the remarks made by such a person are gender-based and could be interpreted to shock, intimidate, or alienate an individual of that gender. Second, the casual nature of a workplace is not sufficient to support an argument that harassing and humiliating behavior against one gender is okay. Third, with absolutely no attempt to investigate or otherwise exercise reasonable care to stop the harassment, an employer will be unable to provide the affirmative defense available under the prevailing Supreme Court cases. Antidiscrimination training and policies should be developed and implemented to assist employers in dealing with these issues and in avoiding legal liability for claims of hostile work environment.