FOURTH CIRCUIT REINSTATES EEOC SUIT
[Posted March 31, 2008] The Fourth Circuit today reverses a grant of summary judgment in favor of an employer in a hostile work environment case, EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. The reversal sends the case back to the district court in
The EEOC filed suit on behalf of a Muslim American named Clifton Ingram, who worked for a company that sells and rents construction equipment. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks in
In analyzing the district courts grant of summary judgment to the employer, the Fourth Circuit employs a familiar four-part test used in hostile work environment cases. It notes that the EEOC has the burden of showing the existence of a material question of fact on each of those factors. (Please note that the law is different in the
Of the four factors, the only one thats significantly contested is the third: Whether the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere. The court notes today that the EEOC must show both that Ingram perceived an abusive atmosphere, and that a reasonable person in his shoe would have felt the same way. That is, the EEOC had to meet both an objective and a subjective standard in order to survive summary judgment.
The subjective part is virtually uncontested; the real battleground here is the question of whether the evidence showed an objectively hostile environment. The Fourth Circuit, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the EEOC, finds that a rational jury could, indeed, find this to be an intolerable environment. Ingram, a U.S. Army veteran, suffered repeated name-calling, teasing, and petty harassment. His co-workers hid his time card when he went to a private room (with the companys blessing) to pray several times a day, as required in the faith of Islam. Viewed against the backdrop of the nations collective psyche at that time, it certainly does not strain credulity to agree with the appellate courts finding today that the facts present a jury issue.
One interesting aspect of the courts analysis deserves special mention. Ordinarily, evidence of other bad acts by the fellow employees would be excluded from the factfinders (and the appellate courts) consideration. But here, the court cites evidence of similar harassment perpetrated on others by the same employees; in this case, a Muslim customer who heard many of the same invectives hurled toward him, and a second customer who heard criticism of Muslims in general. The court notes that this kind of behavior is relevant to show whether Ingram was, indeed, subjected to severe of pervasive religious harassment. Careful practitioners would do well to study this part of the court’s analysis (pages 13-14 of the slip opinion) to see if evidence of other such behavioral nonsense can be admissible in their cases.
One last point todays opinion, written by Judge Wilkinson, resounds with lofty phrases in support of principles that civil libertarians hold dear. The court begins the opinion by noting that many innocent Muslim Americans suffered similar discrimination after the terrorist attacks (as their Japanese American forebears did after December 7, 1941). But the event that shook the foundations of our buildings, Judge Wilkinson writes, did not shake the premise of our founding that here, in
For those who would pigeonhole the Fourth Circuit as a collection of hyper-conservative jurists with comparative disdain for civil liberties, I invite you to ponder todays published opinion, and rethink your preconceived notions.