Ostracism and Petty Mistreatments May Collectively Rise to the Level of Hostile Work Environment for Light Duty Employee

A female plumber on “light duty” in the city of Chicago’s Department of Sewers filed a lawsuit alleging that her supervisor assigned menial work to her, prohibited her co-workers from interacting with her, and subjected her to alleged “verbal violence” because she was female. While the district court viewed each of those actions individually and found that none constituted hostile work environment under Title VII, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of the city and determined that the case should move forward to trial on the basis that a jury could find that the collective treatment could rise to the level of hostile environment. Anna M. Hall v. City of Chicago, No. 11-3279, (7th Cir. March 29, 2013).

In 1999, Anna Hall, a plumber for the city of Chicago, began a lengthy disability leave due to a work-related injury. Hall returned to work in 2003 with a 25-pound lifting restriction and was unable to resume working as a plumber. The city then assigned Hall to light duty in the House Drain Inspectors Division of the city’s Department of Sewers where she was supervised by Gregory Johnson, the division supervisor. Johnson assigned Hall to alphabetize various files for several weeks and, in fact, gave her the same files over and over again. A few weeks later, Johnson did the same with reviews of drainpipe videos, on which Hall took notes which were never read—as Johnson already had reviewed the videos and taken his own notes prior to having Hall undertake the task. After several weeks, Hall complained to the department’s personnel director about the assignments, who dismissed the complaints and allegedly called Hall a “troublemaker” in the process.

In addition to assigning the menial work, Johnson prohibited the other division employees from speaking to Hall, ultimately excluding her from meetings and precluding her from taking on additional responsibilities within the group. Johnson also directed anger towards Hall in other ways, making comments—overheard by Hall—that he “could slap that woman and get a promotion” and that he might “go postal on that woman.” On one occasion early in 2004, Johnson purposely bumped into Hall, after which Hall contacted the police, the union, and her lawyer and ultimately filed a Violence in the Workplace Report with the city. Eight days after filing that report, a written reprimand was issued to Johnson.

Hall continued to do the assignments given to her by Johnson until 2005, when she left the division and filed a lawsuit, alleging that Johnson discriminated and retaliated against her and that the city failed to promote her in retaliation for her complaints. The lower court entered summary judgment against Hall, dismissing the complaint. On appeal, Hall pursued only her hostile work environment claim. The Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision, and remanded the case for further proceedings on that claim.

Title VII makes it unlawful to treat an employee differently because of a protected characteristic, including gender. To survive summary judgment on her Title VII hostile work environment claim, Hall had to provide evidence that the alleged harassment was severe or pervasive, that the hostile conditions were because of her sex, and that the company should be held liable for Johnson’s actions. The Seventh Circuit determined that Hall had done all three.

First, the court stated that it was improper to “carve up the incidents of harassment and then separately analyze each incident, by itself, to see if each rises to the level of being severe or pervasive.” Instead, the Seventh Circuit looked at the totality of the circumstances and found that a jury could conclude that Johnson’s ongoing conduct was designed to ostracize Hall from the rest of the division.

Next, while admitting that this was a “close” case, the court found enough evidence in the record from which a jury could infer that Johnson was motivated by Hall’s gender. That evidence consisted largely of Johnson’s references to “that woman” in his remarks about Hall. It is of note that Hall was not the only woman in the division—Johnson’s secretary also was female. However, the court pointed out that Hall was in a “traditionally male role” (that of plumber) while the secretary was not and referred to research on gender stereotyping.

Third, Hall was able to proffer sufficient evidence on which a jury could base a finding of liability against the city. While the city took prompt action after Hall’s Violence in the Workplace Report, the record also showed that Hall first raised her concerns about her assignments a few weeks into her light duty position, but was met with allegations that Hall was a “troublemaker.” Further, Hall’s report to the union and to the police of the bumping incident in 2004 provided sufficient notice to the city of the issues related to Johnson’s actions.

It is important to understand that the Seventh Circuit’s holding is not an ultimate determination of Hall’s hostile environment claim. However, it does indicate that courts are likely to (1) view hostile work environment complaints with a broad lens, looking at the totality of the circumstances to find “severe or pervasive” behavior; (2) interpret remarks that include references to gender (such as “that woman”) as an indication that the remark was made because of the sex of the person being mentioned; and (3) assume that a jury may find a company liable if prior complaints have been made without some active response.  In addition, the case is a warning to employers regarding the supervision of individuals on “light duty” and a directive to assure that company anti-discrimination policies are enforced for those employees, even though they are in positions other than their own.

Maria Greco Danaher is a shareholder in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins.