Sexual harassment in the workplace is unfortunately all too common. While a victim of such harassment might feel entirely justified in filing a lawsuit against his or her employer, the harassing conduct might not be bad enough to survive a motion for summary judgment. Just how bad does a work environment have to be for a harassment victim to have a potentially successful claim? This was the issue in a recent case out of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.
In this case, Ruba Management (“Ruba”) operated an IHOP restaurant in Boutte, Louisiana. Kelly Matherne worked at IHOP as a server and Sharetha Tart as a cook. Both worked there for about a month. Shortly after being hired, Ms. Matherne reported suffering physical and verbal sexual harassment from four co-workers: three cooks and her weekend manager. She complained on several occasions to various members of Ruba’s management team about the cooks’ actions however neglected to report the manager’s actions. Ms.Tart made similar claims and made reports to management. The harassment allegations were recorded in an IHOP record book kept for such allegations. The weekday manager reviewed video footage from cameras in the restaurant but no actionable conduct could be seen. Lisa Garrison, the store manager, heard of the sexual harassment claims and reviewed the video footage as well and did not see any evidence of sexual harassment. Nevertheless, the alleged harassers were assigned to different shifts so they would not interact with Ms. Matherne or Ms. Tart. Ms. Matherne and Ms.Tart soon after quit and filed a lawsuit against Ruba alleging hostile work environment due to sexual harassment and constructive discharge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted Ruba’s motion for summary judgment. Mr. Matherne and Ms. Tart then filed an appeal with Fifth Circuit.
To establish a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must prove five elements of which only two were at issue in this case: 1) the harassment complained of affected employment and 2) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment in question and failed to take prompt remedial action. See Royal v. CCC & R Tres Arboles, L.L.C., 736 F.3d 396, 401 (5th Cir. 2013). For harassment to be actionable, it has to be sufficiently severe or pervasive to change the plaintiff’s employment atmosphere thus creating an abusive environment. Offensive conduct that includes teasing, comments, or mild isolated incidents will not withstand a motion for summary judgment.
To establish a constructive discharge claim, a plaintiff has to prove that a reasonable person would have also felt compelled to resign. Factors such as a change for the worse in job duties, lowering of salary, harassment intended to provoke resignation and/or forced early retirement are some things courts consider when evaluating the validity of a constructive discharge claim. See Brown v. Kinney Shoe Corp., 237 F.3d 556, 566 (5th Cir. 2001). In addition, a constructive discharge claim requires even a higher degree of harassment than what is required for a hostile work environment claim.
In this case, the evidence presented did not prove either a sexual harassment claim or a constructive discharge claim. The Fifth Circuit held that Ms. Matherne and Ms. Tart could not show that Ruba knew or should have known of the harassment and then failed to take remedial action. For most of the alleged acts of harassment, neither Ms. Matherne nor Ms. Tart made their complaints to Ruba at all. Ms. Matherne never reported the alleged actions of her weekend manager. Where reports were made, Ruba responded with sufficient remedial actions. Ruba employees reviewed surveillance tapes of the alleged harassment and found none. Ruba issued formal warnings were warranted and even rearranged work schedules so Ms. Matherne and Ms. Tart would not be required to work with their alleged harassers. As the Plaintiffs could not prove that Ruba knew or should have known of the harassment and then failed to take remedial action, the entire claim failed.
The Fifth Circuit further found the constructive discharge claim failed. Neither Ms. Matherne nor Ms. Tart could show that they were reassigned to degrading work or that any of the purported harassment was meant to bring about the resignation. The Fifth Circuit instead found that Ruba worked to improve the Plaintiffs’ work environments and that each woman decided instead to quit.
Sexual harassment and constructive discharge claims both come with multiple elements that must be satisfied to proceed to trial. The more elements in a claim, the more evidence is required. Only the best attorney can help you successfully prove a sexual harassment or constructive discharge claim.
Additional Sources: KELLY MATHERNE AND SHARETHA TART VERSUS RUBA MANAGEMENT, doing business as IHOP
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Louisiana Sexual Harassment Cases: Louisiana Appeals Court Defines “Employee” in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit From Iberia Parish