Sexual Harassment Claim Survives Dismissal; Court Rejects Defendant’s “Myopic” Interpretation of the Hostile Work Environment Statement

In Tiffani Kerns v. RCS Trucking & Freight, Inc., No. 1:22-cv-1200 (RDA/IDD), 2023 WL 4868555 (E.D.Va. July 31, 2023), the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims of hostile work environment sexual harassment (as well as constructive discharge) asserted under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In sum, plaintiff alleged that she was subject to sexual harassment by defendant’s owner – and plaintiff’s uncle – Robert Sturgeon. This alleged harassment consisted of sexually explicit remarks and touching over the course of a day during a work trip.

This decision teaches that there is no “minimum time period” over which allegedly harassing conduct must occur in order to plausibly allege an actionable hostile work environment claim.

The court summarized the applicable law as follows:

An employee can bring a hostile work environment claim under Title VII if “discrimination based on sex has created a hostile or abusive work environment.” Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 66 (1986). For such a claim to be viable, the Complaint must plausibly allege facts showing that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult which would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive. Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 21-22 (1993) (quoting Meritor, 477 U.S. at 65, 67). To meet this standard, the plaintiff must allege facts evidencing that the harassment she experienced (1) was unwelcome; (2) was based on the employee’s sex; (3) was ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere’; and (4) was on same basis imputable to the employer. [Cleaned up.]

Here, defendant did not dispute that elements (1), (2), and (4) were satisfied. Rather, defendant’s sole contention was that plaintiff failed to show that the alleged harassment was “severe or pervasive.”

In arguing that element (3) was not satisfied, defendant focused on the fact that the alleged harassment occurred during the course of one day, and argued that “one-day-does-not-a Title VII-case-make” and the “complained of conduct is therefore too trivial and infrequent to sustain a Title VII claim, as it spanned the scope of just one day.”

The court rejected this argument:

RCS Trucking’s rather myopic interpretation of the principles governing hostile work environment claims has no basis in the law. This Court acknowledges that frequency is one factor courts may consider in analyzing hostile work environment claims, and that many hostile work environment claims do involve repeated conduct. However, in accordance with the principles of Title VII case law, the Court rejects RCS Trucking’s assertion that there is a dispositive threshold requirement in hostile work environment claims with regard to the frequency of conduct.

Among other things, the court noted that while the conduct at issue occurred over the course of only one day, it was “insistent and unyielding for the vast majority of that day,” it “persisted relentlessly and without reprieve for a significant number of hours, despite, as Kerns asserts, her explicit and consistent rejection and disapprobation of the conduct,” and was “particularly vulgar and sordid.”

The alleged harasser’s role in the company was also a “significant factor,” since his position “afforded him substantial, unchecked authority over Kerns, as he was not only Kerns’s supervisor, he was also the owner and President of RCS Trucking” such that he “had tremendous power and influence” over plaintiff’s “opportunity for achievement” in her career.

Share This: