Wake Forest Law Review

 

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By: Mikhail Petrov

On July 1, 2015, in the civil case of Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc., the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion vacating the decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and remanding the case for further proceedings. The case concerned the question of when an employer may be held liable for a hostile work environment created by an anonymous actor. The Fourth Circuit determined that Plaintiff, United Airlines Employee Renee Pryor (“Pryor”), presented enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find that her Employer, Defendant United Airlines, Inc. (“United”), had not done enough to protect her from racially motivated death threats. The Fourth Circuit found that the District Court failed to view the evidence of the case in light most favorable to Pryor.

The Racial Threats

Pryor, an African-American employee of United Airlines was stationed at Dulles International Airport. In January 2011, Pryor discovered a note in her company mailbox declaring that the holder was “licensed to hunt and kill N***** during the open search thereof in the US.” The note was titled “N***** Tag – Federal N***** Hunting License.” There was also a hand drawn image of a person hanging from a pole. The mailbox was located in a secure area only accessible to United employees and others with company authorization.

Pryor was shaken and afraid. She went to her supervisor, but he said he was “sorry” and there was “not much” United could do as there were no security cameras in the mail room. He gave Pryor a form to fill out and said he would alert security and the base manager. He did not, however, file with United’s Employee Service Center (“ESC”) as prescribed in United’s Harassment and Discrimination (“H&D”) policy. Pryor’s supervisor went on to notify the base manager, who notified another manager, who in turn, notified the next one. No United manager filed with the ESC as prescribed by the H&D policy. Management also knew that this was not the first racist incident that happened at United. A year before the note in Pryor’s mailbox, rumors surfaced that African-American flight attendants moonlighted as prostitutes during layovers in Kuwait. Additionally, racist apartment advertisements were left in the flight attendants’ break room. Management never fully investigated who was behind these incidents.

Later, Pryor herself reported a complaint to the ESC. Additionally, she contacted the police, something no one at United had done. When the police did arrive, Pryor’s managers were reluctant to speak about the incident, even after the police explained that a racial note was a race crime in Virginia. It took United management two and a half months to send out a must read email regarding the racial harassment.

On October 21, 2011, Pryor and many other African-American employees at Dulles received a nearly identical racist note in their mailboxes. Pryor went to a supervisor, who in turn ignored her. Pryor then went to the police and filed a report. Additionally, Pryor herself notified the ESC and corporate security. Afterwards, the director of human resources at Dulles agreed to conduct an investigation. Although the director was aided in his investigation by the police, the anonymous harasser was not found.

On March 9, 2012, Pryor filed with the EEOC alleging that United failed to investigate the prostitution rumors and racist notes left in the mailboxes, and that the failure constituted discrimination. Pryor alleged that United created a hostile work environment based on the speculation regarding the prostitution ring and the two notes received. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of United because, although the racist notes were sufficiently severe, the conduct could not be imputed to United.

The Rule of the Case

Pryor alleged that she was subject to a racially hostile work environment in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e. The elements an employee must prove are the same under either provision. To survive summary judgment, Pryor must show that a reasonable jury could find the conduct alleged was (1) unwelcome; (2) based on her race; (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the condition of her employment and to create an abusive work environment; and (4) imputable to her employer. Okoli v. City of Baltimore, 648 F.3d 216, 220. (4th Cir. 2011). Elements (1) and (2) are not in dispute. The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that element (3) is met. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit re-examined the district court’s decision on element (4) of whether the harassment is imputable on the employer.

The Reasoning of the Fourth Circuit

The question in this case is whether United is liable for the anonymous harassing conduct. On one hand, employers are not strictly liable for acts of harassment that occur in the workplace. Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 72 (1986) (employer not strictly liable for workplace harassment). On the other hand, the employer maintains a responsibility to reasonably carry out those dual duties of investigation and protection. Thus, the rule is that an employer may be liable for a hostile environment created by third parties “if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take effective action to stop it … by responding with remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment.” EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 521 F.3d 306, 319 (4th Cir. 2008) (employer charged with investigation of harassment and protection of employee). In a case of an anonymous harasser, the threats may heighten what is required of the employer, particularly when the harassment occurs in a closed space accessible only to those that the company authorizes.

Here, Pryor agrees that United’s response to the second threat was adequate. However, it is the first threat that is in question here. United agreed that the threat to Pryor was death, and therefore very serious. The only question is whether United’s response to the first threat was reasonably calculated to end the harassment. A reasonable jury could find that United was neither prompt nor reasonably calculated to end the harassment. In answering the first threat, United did not call the police, report the matter to the ESC, inform corporate security, install cameras, provide Pryor with additional security, or conduct forensics on the note. In short, the Fourth Circuit concluded that a reasonable jury could find that United did little to deter future acts of harassment, particularly because additional acts of harassment did happen. The district court erred by granting summary judgement on this element.

The Fourth Circuit Remanded for Further Proceedings

The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment to United and remanded it for further proceeding consistent with this opinion. The Court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the response United chose was neither prompt nor reasonably calculated. Therefore, the creation of an abusive work environment could be imputable to the employer, United Airlines.

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By Eric Benedict

On May 21, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case Foster v. University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. In Foster, the court set out to determine the impact of the Supreme Court’s University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar opinion on Title VII retaliation analysis. Iris Foster claimed that the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (“the University”) discriminated against her based on gender, created a hostile work environment, and retaliated unlawfully. Although the court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against Foster on her hostile work environment and gender discrimination claims, it reversed the district court’s grant as to the retaliation claim.  Despite disagreement among the circuits, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the Nassar case did not alter the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework.

Foster’s Claims at the United States District Court for the District of Maryland

The University hired Foster in March of 2007 as a campus police officer. Foster alleged that before and during her employment at the University, one of her co-workers sexually harassed her repeatedly. After the University was informed of the harassment, it took action in an attempt to remedy Foster’s concerns and the behavior of her co-worker. However, Foster claimed that the University also took action against her as a result of her complaints. According to Foster, the University retaliated by, among other things, extending her probationary period, changing her schedule, and ultimately terminating her employment.  In her original suit, Foster asserted three claims under Title VII: gender discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliatory termination.

The University filed its motion for summary judgment as to each claim. The District Court originally granted the University’s motions as to the gender and hostile work environment claims, but refused to grant summary judgment as to the retaliation claim. The United States Supreme Court then issued its decision in Nassar. In light of the decision in Nassar, the University filed a motion for reconsideration, asserting that Foster should be held to a higher causation standard. The District Court reviewed the Supreme Court’s holding in Nassar and concluded that both the motion for reconsideration and the motion for summary judgment  should be granted. Foster appealed the District Court’s decision on all three claims to the Fourth Circuit.

Title VII and the Supreme Court’s Holding in Nassar

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) prohibits covered employers from discriminating against covered employees and applicants on the basis of sex and other protected traits. 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2 (2012). An employee who attempts to assert a claim under Title VII may do so in two ways. First, the employee may offer direct or indirect evidence of discrimination. Alternatively, the employee may employ a burden shifting framework known as the “McDonnell Douglas framework.”

Judge Floyd explained that in order to prevail under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case by showing: (i) “that [she] engaged in protected activity,” (ii) “that [her employer] took adverse action against [her],” and (iii) “that a causal relationship existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment activity.”  The burden then shifts to the employer to show that the adverse employment action was due to a legitimate reason. The burden then shifts back to the employee to prove that the employers proffered reason is mere pretext.

In Nassar, the Supreme Court explained that discrimination claims under Title VII differ from retaliation claims. The Supreme Court explained that it was permissible for discrimination claims to take advantage of a “mixed-motive” theory. Under this theory the plaintiff must show that discrimination was at least a part of the reason for the adverse employment action. However, the Supreme Court held that such a theory does not extend to retaliation claims, instead the Court required ”but-for” causation.  Therefore, a plaintiff must show that “the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred  in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer.”

The Supreme Court’s Holding in Nassar Does Not Apply to the McDonnell Douglas Analysis

The Fourth Circuit determined that the District Court erroneously applied the Nassar holding to the McDonnell Douglas or ‘pretext’ framework. Judge Floyd reiterated that a plaintiff who files suit under Title VII may proceed by either ‘direct evidence’ or under a ‘pretext’ framework. The Fourth Circuit determined that the Nassar Court’s decision only applied to ‘direct evidence’ claims.

Nassar Does Not Alter Either Portion of the McDonnell Douglas Analysis

The Fourth Circuit concluded that Nassar does not alter the prima facie case portion nor the burden shifting portion of the McDonnell Douglas test.  The court reasoned that the ‘causal relationship’ prong of the prima facie case demands a lower standard than the ‘pretext’ prong because otherwise the pretext prong would be redundant. Further, the court concluded that if the Supreme Court had meant to eliminate the McDonnell Douglas framework, they would have done so explicitly, given its significance to Title VII jurisprudence.

Judge Floyd also explained that the pretext prong of the analysis already required a ‘but-for’ test and was therefore undisturbed by Nassar. Citing Fourth Circuit precedent, the court noted that an employee “must establish ‘both that the [employer’s] reason was false and that [retaliation] was the real reason for the challenged conduct.’” Therefore, Judge Floyd concluded that the pretext prong was not altered by Nassar and that the District Court’s initial judgment was correct.

The Fourth Circuit Remands the Title VII Retaliation Claim

The Court affirmed summary judgment as to the gender discrimination and hostile environment claims. However, it found that Foster’s retaliation claims must survive the summary judgment stage because the holding in Nassar did not alter the causation standard for a Title VII plaintiff who employs the McDonnell Douglas framework.