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Decided: April 29, 2014

The Fourth Circuit reversed, and remanded, the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Dal-Tile on the Title VII claims of a sexually and racially hostile work environment, as well as the § 1981 claim for a racially hostile work environment.  However, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Dal-Tile on the constructive discharge claim and the North Carolina obstruction of justice claim.

Lori Freeman (“Freeman”) began working as a receptionist for Dal-Tile’s predecessor in August 2006, and became a Dal-Tile employee after the merger and acquisition of her employer.  In November 2009, Freeman’s position was reclassified as a Customer Service Representative.  Throughout her employment, Freeman regularly interacted with Timothy Koester (“Koester”), an independent sales representative for one of Dal-Tile’s customers.  During these interactions, Koester was well known for regularly using racially degrading language, detailing his own sexual conquests, sharing photos of naked women with Freeman from his cell phone, making sexually explicit remarks about a co-worker’s daughters, as well as other sexually inappropriate remarks, and passing gas on Freeman’s telephone.  Other co-workers testified that Koester engaged in this type of behavior, and Koester confirmed that he made inappropriate sexual comments, and that his racial remarks may have been inappropriate.  Koester’s behavior included using the terms n****r and black b***h.  Freeman confronted Koester about his language, and that it made her feel uncomfortable, and at various times Freeman’s supervisors were either present, or informed by her of the incidents with Koester, but nothing was done until she reported Koester’s remarks to human resources.  After promising to ban Koester from the premises, human resources lifted the ban and simply barred Koester’s communication with Freeman.  After taking a medical leave of absence for depression and anxiety, Freeman ultimately resigned from her position because she feared running into Koester.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the record, facts, and inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, as required by a summary judgment motion.  To succeed on a hostile work environment claim, Freeman must demonstrate to a reasonable juror that the harassment was “(1) unwelcome, (2) based on [Freeman’s] gender or race, (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive atmosphere, and (4) imputable to [Dal-Tile].”  EEOC v. Cent. Wholesalers, Inc., 573 F.3d 167, 175 (4th Cir. 2009) (citing EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 521 F.3d 306, 313–14 (4th Cir. 2008)).  The Court concluded that a reasonable juror could find that a racially or sexually hostile work environment existed from the facts presented.

The Court also formally adopted a negligence standard, and stated that “an employer is liable under Title VII for third parties creating a hostile work environment if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed ‘to take prompt remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment.’  Amirmokri v. Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co., 60 F.3d 1126, 1131 (4th Cir. 1995) (quoting Katz v. Dole, 709 F.3d 251, 256 (4th Cir. 1983)) (internal quotation marks omitted) (applying this standard to co-worker harassment).”  Here, the Court reasoned that Freeman presented a jury question on whether Dal-Tile’s remedial actions were sufficient, and that a reasonable juror could find Dal-Tile through its agent knew, or should have known, of the harassment.  However, the Court agreed that Freeman voluntarily left her position, and therefore affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for her constructive discharge claim.  Similarly, the Court found no evidence that Dal-Tile destroyed emails as a barrier to litigation, and affirmed the district court’s holding that no feasible obstruction of justice claim existed.

In Judge Niemeyer’s separate opinion, which concurred in part and dissented in part, he disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the record, and believed that the employer effectively intervened on Freeman’s behalf.  Moreover, Judge Niemeyer believed that the majority greatly increased the scope of Title VII beyond those recognized rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Full Opinion

Samantha R. Wilder