“Intertwined” Race/Sex Harassment Claim Survives Summary Judgment Against Ford Motor Company

In Johnson v. Ford Motor Company, 2021 WL 3928920 (6th Cir. Sept. 2, 2021), the court reversed the lower court’s Order granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim of race-based hostile work environment/harassment under 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

From the decision:

[T]he district court erred in granting summary judgment to Ford on the severe or pervasive prong of Johnson’s claim because there is sufficient evidence in the record that Rowan’s racial harassment was severe or pervasive enough for a reasonable person to find the work environment hostile. As the district court noted in its order, Johnson testified that, over the four-month period in which Johnson worked with Rowan at Ford, Rowan was “constantly harassing” her, and she made specific references to Rowan’s racially harassing comments. The district court erroneously discounted this testimony, determining that Johnson “present[ed] little evidence regarding the frequency of the alleged conduct.” But as in Abeita, in the present case, Johnson’s testimony was sufficient to demonstrate that Rowan’s constant and ongoing harassing conduct was pervasive.

The district court also failed to account for the fact that these comments and messages were not “mere offensive utterance[s]” but rather they were “physically threatening or humiliating.” As Johnson testified at deposition and included in her declaration, many of Rowan’s harassing comments constituted specific demands to see or receive pictures of Johnson’s breasts or vagina, infused with references to Johnson’s race. (See R. 55-3, Johnson Dep. at PageID # 1226 (testifying that Rowan asked Johnson to “[l]et me see those black mounds. Let me see those brown mountains. Send me a picture when you go to the bathroom.”); R. 55-4, Johnson Decl. at ¶¶ 19–20 (indicating that Rowan told Johnson that “he needed a black woman in his ‘collection’ ” and that one day at work after “she brought him a Mounds bar” he texted her “not exactly the black mounds I wanted to feast my eyes upon”).) These comments and messages go beyond “simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents” and constitute severe and pervasive racial harassment.

Additionally, despite rejecting Ford’s argument that the comments “were made in a ‘plainly sexual’ context and thus do not establish a racially hostile environment,” the district court impermissibly parsed out what it viewed as sexually harassing as opposed to racially harassing statements, by, for example, focusing on the fact that the record only contained one text message with “a racially charged comment.” As we noted in Jackson, “even though a certain action may not have been specifically racial in nature, it may contribute to the plaintiff’s proof of a hostile work environment if it would not have occurred but for” the plaintiff’s race. 191 F.3d at 662. And given how intertwined the sexual and racial harassment was in the present case, the district court erred in failing to consider, as part of the totality of the circumstances, those comments, messages, and pictures that were overtly sexual in addition to the race-related ones.

Finally, the district court failed to consider the evidence Johnson cited in her response in opposition to Ford’s motion for summary judgment from which a reasonable person would find that Rowan’s harassment unreasonably interfered with her employment. This included references to Johnson’s deposition testimony where she recounted how Rowan was not properly training her for the job because she was not providing him the requested photos, as well as Johnson having an emotional breakdown and passing out at work due to stress.

[Citations omitted; cleaned up.]

Based on this, the court concluded that “a reasonable person would find Johnson’s work environment at Ford to be hostile and abusive based on Rowan’s severe and pervasive racial harassment,” and therefore, the district court erred in granting summary judgment to defendant on this basis.

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