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Case Bulletin – Fourth Circuit Renders Decision Placing the Issue of Whether an Employee has Objectively Suffered Severe or Pervasive Harassment with the Jury

On December 23, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rendered a decision that placed the issue of whether an employee has subjectively and objectively suffered harassment in her workplace to satisfy the requirements under Title VII, with the jury and not with a judge deciding a motion for summary judgment. In Walker v. Mod-U-Kraf Homes, LLC, 2014 WL 7273031 (4th Cir. 2014), Robin Lynn Walker appealed the district court’s decision granting her former employer, Mod-U-Kraf Homes, LLC’s Motion for Summary Judgment on her claims of a sexually hostile work environment.

 

Throughout her employment with Mod-U-Kraf, Walker was subjected to various inappropriate sex-based comments by a co-worker, David Mullins. Walker followed the procedures set forth by her employer, yet no action was taken. Eventually Mullins was spoken to, but that only ceased his actions and inappropriate comments momentarily. After having reached her point of exhaustion with the comments consistently made to Mullins, an altercation broke out between the two which ultimately resulted in Walker’s termination. As a result, Walker filed a complaint alleging that she was subjected to a hostile work environment in the form of sexual harassment and Mod-U-Kraf moved for summary judgment.

 

The district court held that Walker’s evidence of severe or pervasive conduct was “insufficient as a matter of law,” and as a result dismissed her complaint and granted summary judgment in favor of Mod-U-Kraf. The district court entered summary judgment against the plaintiff on her alleged claim of retaliation.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment entered in favor of the employer as to the retaliation claim.

 

The district court, in its ruling, found that Walker failed to satisfy the third element of a hostile work environment under Title VII (the offending behavior was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive atmosphere). On appeal, the Court held that the third element to establishing a claim for a hostile work environment is one that requires both a subjective and objective analysis. In reversing the decision of the district court and concluding that the court erred in stating that the actions taken by Mullins and another co-worker could not constitute actionable severe or pervasive harassment, the Court relied on two principles. The Court relied on the standard for summary judgment, in that the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Second, the Court noted that the issue of whether conduct is severe or pervasive is a question of fact. The Court noted that all of the information, evidence and testimony before them created too close of a question as to whether the conduct complained of created an objectively hostile work environment. Because this question cannot be answered by some “mathematically precise test” but rather on a variety of factors (including frequency, severity, whether it is physically threatening), the Court determined that it is inappropriate to be answered at the summary judgment stage. There existed a genuine issue of fact and summary judgment as to that question should not have been granted.