[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 Maryland, where the employee can now present his claims to a jury.

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 New York and Virginia, and again after the D.C. sniper attacks the following year, Ingram was the victim of significant harassment by fellow employees at his place of employment in Gaithersburg. He complained to his supervisors, who investigated and ordered any harassment to stop. But the behavior recurred, and Ingram was eventually terminated early in 2003.

In analyzing the district court’s 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 Virginia system, in which summary judgment is a disfavored remedy. In federal court, where such a remedy is favored, the appellant has a significant burden to prove the existence of a triable issue. In the state system, the appellate court almost starts out with the presumption that reversal should be ordered – please read that phrase in the figurative sense in which it’s intended – and devotes heightened attention to such a ruling.)

Of the four factors, the only one that’s 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 company’s blessing) to pray several times a day, as required in the faith of Islam. Viewed against the backdrop of the nation’s collective psyche at that time, it certainly does not strain credulity to agree with the appellate court’s finding today that the facts present a jury issue.

One interesting aspect of the court’s analysis deserves special mention. Ordinarily, evidence of “other bad acts” by the fellow employees would be excluded from the factfinder’s (and the appellate court’s) 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 – today’s 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 America, there is no heretical faith.” He later writes that “Free religious exercise would mean little if restricted to places of worship or days of observance, only to disappear the next morning at work.”

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 today’s published opinion, and rethink your preconceived notions.