Sexual harassment victims just scored a major victory before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Ingrid Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide. Ingrid Reeves worked for C.H. Robinson Worldwide (CHRW) based in Birmingham, Alabama as a transportation sales representative from 2001 through 2004. During her tenure, Ms. Reeves states in her complaint that she was subjected to sexually offensive remarks in which her co-workers, the large majority being men, referred to women as “bitch” and “whore.” It was also not uncommon for her male colleagues to allegedly listen to a local radio program discussing women breast sizes and pornography.
In bringing her claim for sexual harassment, Ms. Reeves faced an uphill battle because none of the derogatory comments about women were directed toward her. On this basis, the Northern District Court of Alabama granted summary judgment to CHRW, dismissing her case and preventing Ms. Reeves from going before a jury. Ms. Reeves appealed to the 11th Circuit, which had held in Walker v. Ford Motor Co. that racial epithets in the workplace could support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, even where the derogatory statements were not directed at the plaintiff. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the 11th Circuit extended its holding in Walker to the sexual harassment context:
The language in the CHRW office included the “sex specific” words “bitch,” “whore,” and “cunt” that … may be more degrading to women than men. The subject matter of the conversations and jokes that allegedly permeated the office on a daily basis included male and female sexual anatomy, masturbation, and female pornography, all of which was discussed in a manner that was similarly more degrading to women than men. The radio programming that Reeves claims was also similar. Therefore, even if such language was used indiscriminately in the office such that men and women were equally exposed to the language, the language had a discriminatory effect on Reeves because of its degrading nature. Accordingly, just as the language in Walker was sufficient to support Walker’s hostile work environment claim because it particularly offended Walker as a black man, we hold that the evidence Reeves presented was sufficient to survive summary judgment on the “based on” element here.
This is a key victory for employees who must endure sexually hostile work environments. Under the 11th Circuit’s decision in Reeves, employers will no longer be able to hide behind obtuse technicalities to avoid liability. For more information about this decision, please visit Law.com’s article entitled, 11th Circuit OKs Suit Based on Sexual Language in Office.