Posts Tagged ‘menial work’

In the recent case of Hall v. Chicago the Seven Circuit found that a female plumber, (sometimes referred to as “Hall” by the author of this blog and allegedly referred to as “that woman” by her supervisor), has a triable hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 based on incidents which viewed in isolation may seem relatively minor, but when viewed in their totality the court deemed sufficiently pervasive to make out a hostile work environment claim.

Hall or “that woman” was a female plumber for the City of Chicago and the only woman, aside from a secretary, in her division.  Hall claimed that that her male supervisor isolated her from coworkers, assigned her menial work, and subjected her to physically aggressive comments.  Specifically, she alleged that she was treated as the division pariah, undeserving of human interaction, that she was given menial tasks such as alphabetizing and sorting the same files and watching videotape footage that had already been reviewed.  The allegedly aggressive comments included her boss saying that he: “ought to slap that woman sitting out there,” “I could slap that woman and get a promotion” and “I ought to go postal on that woman.”

At the trial level, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the City of Chicago, but on appeal, the Seventh Circuit found that although Hall’s claims would not individually be considered severe or pervasive harassment under Title VII, a reasonable jury could view them together as creating a hostile work environment.  The appeals court also found that Hall established a triable factual dispute about whether her supervisor’s alleged harassment was based on her sex, but the court admitted this was a close call.

Interestingly, the court acknowledged that while Hall’s work may have been “unpleasant, boring, and unnecessary, that can be said of much work and there is no right to enjoyable work or to communicate with coworkers.  However, the court found that when forced to look at the totality of the circumstances, incidents which viewed in isolation as relatively minor, that consistently or systematically burden women throughout their employment are sufficiently pervasive to make out a hostile work environment claim.  The court found that in Hall’s case, her supervisor not only assigned her menial work, but he purportedly isolated her from co-workers, subjected her to verbal outburst, and physically bumped her on occasion.

As for Hall’s claim that the harassment was sex based, the court said it was a close call.  The court referenced the supervisor’s alleged comments and noted that rarely does one say that they are going to “slap a male” and to the extent that ambiguity remains, the supervisor attached “that woman” to the end of the sentence permitting a juror to conclude Hall’s gender was one factor leading to the outburst.  However, the court commented that not all sex-specific comments are evidenced of animus based on sex.  “Where a comment crosses the line from gender specific to evidencing gender animus is blurry and depends on factual context.”  Although the court viewed the supervisor’s use of “that woman” as indistinct from the use of “she,” and therefore not evidence of gender-based animus, the court felt that a jury could conclude that the comments evidenced gender animus.

The takeaway:  train supervisors to avoid phrases such as “that woman” which may have undertones of discrimination.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

 

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