4th Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Sexual Harassment Case

In EEOC v. Fairbrook Medical Clinic, the Fourth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim. More after the break.

The EEOC brought suit against Fairbrook Medical Clinic (“Fairbrook”) on behalf of a female physician, Dr. Deborah Waechter, who alleged she was subject to a hostile work environment by her supervisor and sole owner of Fairbrook, Dr. John Kessel. Waechter alleged that Kessel made sexual comments and told crude jokes at work, ultimately driving Waechter to resign her employment. The district court found that Kessel’s conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment and granted Fairbrook’s motion for summary judgment.

On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Fairbrook argued that Kessel’s comments were not based on Waechter’s sex; instead, Fairbrook argued that Kessel made vulgar comments to both men and women equally. The court stated that although Kessel made offensive comments to male and female employees, Kessel’s use of “sex-specific and derogatory terms indicate[d] that he intended to demean women.” Therefore, the court determined that the nature of the remarks was such that a jury could conclude that Kessel’s comments were “based on sex.”

Next, the court analyzed the “severe and pervasive” prong of the prima facie case. The court stated that in order to be actionable, “sexual harassment must be objectively hostile or abusive, and the victim must subjectively perceive it as such.” The objective part of the inquiry must be “judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position, considering all the circumstances.” Fairbrook argued that Kessel’s conduct, when viewed in the context in which it occurred, was not sufficiently severe to be actionable under Title VII; instead, it was merely the type of crude and vulgar behavior that is sometimes part of certain workplace environments. The court disagreed, stating that Kessel’s comments were of a highly personalized nature aimed at demeaning and ridiculing Waechter. The court held that “[w]hen assessing the severity of Kessel’s conduct, a jury could give significant weight to the intensely personal nature of this interaction.”

The court also found significant the fact that Kessel was Waechter’s immediate supervisor and also the sole owner of Fairbrook, which meant that he had authority over Waechter on a daily basis and the ability to influence her career. The court further concluded that the fact that Waechter may have made occasional off-color remarks herself did not negate her claim.

Fairbrook also argued that Kessel’s conduct was not sufficiently severe because Waechter did not miss work and was not otherwise adversely affected by Kessel’s conduct. The court stated that while relevant, these factors were not decisive. “The critical inquiry is not whether work has been impaired, but whether working conditions have been discriminatorily altered.” The court found that a jury could conclude that Waechter’s working conditions were altered by Kessel’s conduct.

The court likewise dismissed Fairbrook’s argument that the absence of inappropriate touching or sexual advances by Kessel deemed his conduct not sufficiently severe or pervasive. The court stated that “[a] work environment consumed by remarks that intimidate, ridicule, and maliciously demean the status of women can create an environment that is as hostile as an environment that contains unwanted sexual advances.” Accordingly, the court concluded that the EEOC had proffered sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that Kessel’s conduct was severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment, as well as sufficient evidence to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether Fairbrook “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior.”