Friday, March 21, 2014

Gender-based abuse in the workplace violates Title VII

The Court of Appeals has reinstated a hostile work environment claim where a male supervisor treated everyone like garbage, heaping the worst abuse onto the women.

The case is Castagna v. Luceno, a summary order decided on March 5. Bad people in the workplace may be fertile ground for Title VII lawsuits, but you have to show they were discriminating against the women (or the men, but it's usually the women). As the Supreme Court has told us, Title VII is not a general civility code. This means that the equal opportunity harasser is not committing gender discrimination.

In this case, the defendant "directed physical threats at three female employees, including Castagna, on separate occasions, but he never physically threatened men. Under our precedents, such evidence of physical threats is highly probative of the severity of the alleged hostile work environment. ... The lack of any evidence that Luceno physically threatened men — as opposed to women — supports a reasonable inference that Luceno singled out women for physical threats because of their sex."

Note the emphasis on physical threats toward women. The district court ruling summarizes plaintiff's testimony that the male supervisor was horrible to men as well: "while Castagna alleges that it was only the female employees of Majestic that were subjected to Luceno's verbal abuse, she has submitted substantial evidence, including her own testimony, tending to show that Majestic's male employees were not spared Luceno's temper." So the Court of Appeals is saying that even though the defendant yelled at men and women, that does not mean the abuse was not gender-based, as only the women were subjected to physical threats.

In addition, the defendant's outbursts were in fact motivated by gender. This guy had an anger-management problem, but he also had a problem with women. The Court of Appeals (Stein [D.J.], Livingston and Lohier) says that "the record is replete with evidence that Luceno’s most extreme outbursts were directed at women. A reasonable jury would be entitled to conclude that such comments — at least in conjunction with the evidence of physical threats — were either 'sufficiently severe or sufficiently pervasive . . . to have altered [Castagna’s] working conditions.' Given the gender‐explicit content of several of these outbursts, including but not limited to referring to other women as 'bitch[es],' the district court erred in concluding that no reasonable jury could find that Castagna was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her sex." This is a nuanced holding. True, the men suffered abuse, too. But the women got it worse. That gives the plaintiff a Title VII claim, and it therefore goes to trial.

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