Actionable hostile work environment can be based upon a single action.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that it is up to a jury to determine whether, in fact, a single instance of uninvited intimate physical contact may be sufficient to support a claim of hostile work environment. Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority, 7th Cir., No. 07-2288, August 23, 2010.

Cynthia Berry was hired by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) in 2002 as a carpenter. In January 2006, Berry was one of only two female employees among about 50 individuals working in Area 315, and was the only female of the 15 carpenters working there. During breaks, employees in Area 315 often played cards at a picnic-style table in a break area. During a morning break on January 17 or 18, Berry sat down at the table with three male employees. A fourth male employee, Carmichael, sat down straddling the bench, with his back toward Berry. According to Berry, Carmichael began rubbing his back against Berry’s shoulder. She jumped up, told him to stop, and moved to the other end of the table. Although another employee told Berry to get up, Berry remained seated. Berry alleges that Carmichael then lifted her from behind, grabbing her by the breasts, and rubbed her body against his before throwing her to the ground “with force.” She further alleges that Carmichael then pushed her into a fence.

On the following day, Berry reported the incident to one of her supervisors (Gorman), who – according to Berry – told her that she was a “pain in the butt” and that she could lose her job if she filed charges against Carmichael. Berry alleges that Gorman also said that he was “going to do whatever it takes to protect CTA.” However, Gorman reported the incident to a CTA EEO investigator, and collected statements from Berry and the others who witnessed the incident for review by the investigator. In the meantime, Berry called the police, reporting that she had “been attacked” at work. The police spoke to Berry, Carmichael and Gorman, and determined, based on that investigation, that Berry actually had been the aggressor. The CTA investigation ultimately resulted in the same finding. Berry contends that Gorman sabotaged the investigation to prevent the alleged harassers from being punished; she then filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation. The lower court granted summary judgment in CTA’s favor, dismissing all of Berry’s claims. It dismissed the gender discrimination claim based on the absence of an adverse employment action, and the retaliation claim because Berry raised the issue only during the summary judgment process. The lower court also found that the hostile environment claim could not go forward because CTA took prompt and reasonable steps to discover and rectify the actions complained of by Berry.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit upheld the dismissal of the gender discrimination and retaliation claims, but reversed the dismissal of the hostile environment claim. In order for that claim to survive summary judgment, Berry had to show that she was subjected to unwelcome conduct because of her sex, that the conduct was so severe or pervasive that it created a hostile environment, and that there was a basis for CTA’s liability. Berry argues that she experienced a hostile environment when Carmichael allegedly rubbed his body with hers; she also argues that Gorman’s dismissive comments to her about her complaints form the basis for CTA’s liability. The lower court had discounted Berry’s uncorroborated testimony on those issues when it found in CTA’s favor.

The Seventh Circuit spelled out the principles upon which it based its decision, specifically finding that personal knowledge or first-hand experience of a plaintiff can create a “disputed fact” that can only be resolved by a jury. According to the Seventh Circuit, the lower court improperly discounted Berry’s testimony, which was based on her own personal encounters with both Carmichael and Gorman and therefore, according to the Seventh Circuit, could create issues of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment. The Court further held that a single act can create a hostile environment if it is severe enough. Carmichael’s actions, as alleged by Berry, qualify as such an act. Notably, the Seventh Circuit also determined – based solely on Berry’s uncorroborated testimony of Gorman’s remarks – that a “reasonable factfinder” could come to the conclusion that CTA, through its manager, had “maliciously thwarted any legitimate investigation, and that CTA was therefore negligent or worse in responding to [Berry’s] report of harassment.”

The primary method for employers to avoid this situation is to be able to show thorough and detailed investigation training, and to ensure that managers’ responses to complainant/employees are consistent, objective, and by-the-book, in order to establish some defense to the uncorroborated testimony of such employees.