Complaints To Supervisor/Harasser Are Sufficient To Overcome Affirmative Defense On Hostile Environment Claim
There’s lots of meaty reading in the Second Circuit case of Gorzynski v JetBlue Airways Corporation decided this month. The 31 page opinion hits multiple issues including sexual harassment, age discrimination, race discrimination, and retaliation.
The Federal District Court threw out the case on summary judgment. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and this is why.
Facts Of The Case
It’s a long story, but here’s the gist of it.
JetBlue hired Diane Gorzynski as a customer service agent in January 2000 for its operation at Buffalo International Airport. She was 54 years old at the time. In May 2000 she was promoted to the position of Customer Service Supervisor and stayed in that position until she was fired on July 5, 2002.
The customer service supervisors were managed by James Celeste, the General Manager. William Thro, a regional manager, was responsible for overseeing the General Managers of several JetBlue stations.
During her employment, Gorzynski experienced age and gender discrimination including sexual harassment. She also observed discrimination of other employees. The main culprit was her supervisor, James Celeste.
Gorzynski complained to Celeste on numerous occasions about the discrimination and harassment she experienced and about the discrimination and harassment of her co-employees.
She was retaliated against and fired, she believed, because of her complaints.
Gorzynski filed a lawsuit claiming that JetBlue:
* discriminated against her because of gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
* discriminated against her because of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act
* retaliated against her for complaints to her supervisors about age and gender discrimination and race discrimination of co-employees in violation of Title VII and the ADEA
She also claimed numerous violations on the New York Human Rights Law.
The federal District Court granted JetBlue’s Motion for Summary Judgment of all claims. Gorzynski filed an appeal.
The Second Circuit Reverses
The Faragher/Ellerth Defense
One of the most important and interesting parts of the decision is its holding regarding JetBlue’s affirmative defense on which the District Court hung its hat to throw out Gorzynski’s sexual harassment claim – and it’s a holding which can effect lots of people.
In order to establish a hostile environment sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff must produce enough evidence to show that the workplace was:
* permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is
* sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and
* create an abusive working environment
In analyzing a hostile environment claim, the court is required to “look at the record as a whole and assess the totality of the circumstances.”
In this case, Gorzynski presented evidence that Celeste:
* grabbed Gorzynsi and other women around the waist
* tickled them
* stared at them as if” he was mentally undressing them”
* made numerous sexual comments including remarks about wanting to suck on or massage their breasts.
The District Court did not consider this evidence. Instead, it found that JetBlue was entitled to win as a matter of law because of its “affirmative offense” under the Supreme Court Faragher and Ellerth decisions.
The employer is entitled to raise the defense in certain sexual harassment scenarios involving supervisors and co-workers if it can show that:
* it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior and
* the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid the harm
With respect to the first element, JetBlue presented evidence of its sexual harassment policy (contained in its employee handbook) which stated that: “any crewmember who believes that he or she is the victim of any type of discriminatory conduct, including sexual harassment, should bring that conduct to the immediate attention of his or her supervisor, the People Department or any member of management.”
JetBlue argued that Gorxynski was not entitled to proceed on her sexual harassment claim because she failed to take advantage of the policy in the handbook when she:
* only complained to her supervisor — the harasser
* did not complain to other members of management.
The District Court agreed with JetBlue and granted judgment in its favor on Gorzyynski’s sexual harassment claim.
The Second Circuit rejected the District Court’s conclusion and reversed. It stated:
We reject such a brittle reading of the Faragher/Ellerth defense. We do not believe that the Supreme Court, when it fashioned this affirmative defense, intended that victims of sexual harassment, in order to preserve their rights, must go from manager to manager until they find someone who will address their complaints.
Considering the courage it takes to complain about what are often humiliating events and the understandable fear of retaliation that exists in many sexual harassment situations, we decline to read the rule so rigidly.
Accordingly, we hold that an employer is not, as a matter of law, entitled to the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense simply because an employer’s sexual harassment policy provides that the plaintiff could have complained to other persons as well as the alleged harasser.
Instead, we conclude that the facts and circumstances of each case must be examined to determine whether, by not pursuing other avenues provided in the employer’s sexual harassment policy, the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer’s preventative measures.
In this case, the Court noted that:
* the other manager Gorzynski could have complained to was Thro — the regional manager
* the evidence showed that Thro was not receptive to receiving complaints from employees
* the evidence also showed that Thro was intimidating
* Thro retaliated against those who made complaints
Therefore, the Second Circuit held — in reinstating the sexual harassment claim — the question of whether or not Gorzynski unreasonably failed to take advantage of the options provided in the sexual harassment policy was a jury question.
Remaining Issues Of Fact For The Jury
Gorzyski established a prima facie case of age discrimination:
* she was over 40
* she was qualified for her position
* she was fired
* she was replaced by a woman in her 40’s
JetBlue countered this inference of age discrimination with its “legitimate business reason”: it fired Gorzynski because of her “management style,” “unprofessional conduct and poor interpersonal skills” and the “hostile work environment she created.”
The District Court found that Gorzynski did not present any evidence that JetBlue’s reasons were false or pretextual – and threw out her age discrimination claim.
The Second Circuit disagreed. Some of the evidence it noted was:
* the negative evaluation Gorzynski received from Celeste — a 2 out of 5 — was conducted after he had supervised her for only one week
* a contemporary, anonymous crewmember gave her a 4 out of 5
* at the same time Celeste gave Crowly, a 30 year old customer service rep. a 4 out of 5 even though Crowly had been written up and counseled on numerous occasions –Celeste then promoted him
* JetBlue’s investigation regarding an incident which immediately preceded Gorzynski’s discharge was “questionable at best”
* Celeste told Gorzynski she reminded him of his 80 year old aunt
* younger employees were not disciplined for violating numerous policies including smoking and sleeping on the job
The Court stated:
Given the cumulative weight of this evidence, we believe that a reasonable jury could find not only that the explanations given by JetBlue for Gorzynski’s termination were pretextual, but also that, together with Celeste’s passing comment about his aunt, it was her age that was the ‘but for’ cause of Gorzynski’s termination.
Accordingly, we vacate the District Court’s dismissal of Gorzynski’s age discrimination claims.
(the case also has a very interesting discussion of “age plus” discrimination in connection with her claim that Celeste discriminated against older women)
The District Court also dismissed Gorzynski’s claim that she was discharged in retaliation for complaining about race, gender and age discrimination.
In order to establish a retaliation claim, the plaintiff must show
1. that she participated in a protected activity
2. suffered an adverse employment action
3. a causal connection between her engaging in the protected activity and the adverse employment action
The Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s holding on the retaliation claims noting in part:
* five months – the time between Gorzynski expressed concern about a co-workers race discrimination and her discharge – was “not too long to find a causal relationship.”
* a complaint about a sexual harassment incident two months before her discharge sufficiently alleged a causal connection between her protected complaint about sex discrimination and her termination
* Gorzynski’s statements in her affidavit that there was unequal enforcement of the rules at the Buffalo station with respect to older employees versus younger employees should have been considered by the Court
In sum, the Court said
JetBlue has articulated a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for Gorzynski’s termination, and Gorzynski has produced evidence that casts significant doubt on that rationale, leaving a triable issue as to whether JetBlue retaliated against her for complaining about prohibited discrimination.
Lessons To Be Learned
The decision is filled with points of law that are very helpful to employees who have filed employment discrimination claims. It gives numerous examples of what may be considered evidence of disparate treatment, pretext, and retaliation.
It also has a very interesting discussion of gender/age “plus” discrimination, where a subset of women are being discriminated against in the workplace, ie., older women, or black women, but not all women — which in reality is quite common.
Most noteworthy is the discussion of the Faragher/Ellerth defense. While it is critical for those who have been sexually harassed to complain to someone in management, the opinion makes it clear that victims of sexual harassment will not lose their rights because they did not complain to each person designated in a company’s sexual harassment policy.
Complaints to the supervisor/harasser are sufficient. That particular point of law will be a huge help to many victims.
*This article was originally published in Employee Rights Post on February 28, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.
About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights attorneys in the United States, Ellen Simon has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. A sought-after legal analyst and expert, she discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post www.employeerightspost.com/ has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. Learn more about Ellen Simon at www.ellensimon.net/.