Court Says Employee Can Sue over Vulgarity in the Workplace

January 22, 2010 ( – A federal appeals court has reinstated a female employee's claim of a hostile work environment.

In its decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it found sufficient evidence of an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive. “While the record is replete with evidence of general, indiscriminate vulgarity, there is also ample evidence of gender-specific, derogatory comments made about women on account of their sex,” the court said.

Some news reports are calling the ruling a “landmark decision” that could give female employees more freedom to pursue sexual harassment claims if they are subjected to name-calling of females in the workplace. The appellate judges said the name-calling doesn’t have to be directed to the plaintiff specifically.

The appellate court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the case, rejecting its conclusions that the offensive conduct was not motivated by Ingrid Reeves’ sex, because the commonplace derogatory language in the office was not directed at her in particular, and that since the language was used and a vulgar radio program was played in the presence of all employees, “both men and women were afforded like treatment,” and Reeves was not “intentionally singled out for adverse treatment because of her sex.” The appellate court pointed out that Reeves was the only female transportation sales representative in the Birmingham, Alabama, branch of the shipping company C.H. Robinson, working in a group of cubicles with six male co-workers.

While the court noted that sexual language and discussions that truly are indiscriminate do not themselves establish sexual harassment under Title VII, “[n]evertheless, a member of a protected group cannot be forced to endure pervasive, derogatory conduct and references that are gender-specific in the workplace, just because the workplace may be otherwise rife with generally indiscriminate vulgar conduct.” The court added: “Title VII does not offer boorish employers a free pass to discriminate against their employees specifically on account of gender just because they have tolerated pervasive but indiscriminate profanity as well.”

Reeves told the court that every single day of her employment with C.H. Holdings, from July 2001 to March 2004, she was subjected to derogatory and vulgar language about women and/or women’s anatomy. In addition, she said her co-workers listened to a morning radio show that included conversations about women’s anatomy and people having sex, and she told of instances where her male co-workers displayed graphic, pornographic images of women.

Reeves confronted her co-workers about their disturbing language and behavior, and though she would sometimes get an apology, nothing changed. She said she then complained to managers with no result. She resigned in 2004 and later brought suit against the company, claiming a hostile work environment.

The 11th Circuit’s opinion is here.