By Christopher W. Kelleher, Emily J. Miller, and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a manager’s behavior toward an employee was “reprehensible and improper,” but did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment under Title VII, and affirmed summary judgment for defendants.

In Paskert v. Kemna-ASA Auto Plaza, Inc., et al., a former sales associate brought suit against Auto Smart alleging hostile work environment sexual harassment in violation of Title VII.  The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa granted Auto Smart’s motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The summary judgment record reflected that plaintiff’s supervisor’s conduct was volatile, and that his “treatment toward women was demeaning, sexually suggestive, and improper.”  The supervisor bragged about his purported sexual conquests, and on one occasion, he attempted to rub plaintiff’s shoulders and said he was going to give her a hug.  On another occasion, the supervisor told plaintiff: “I could have you . . . You could be mine[.]”  Plaintiff reported these incidents to Auto Smart’s Director and Supervising Manager.  In November 2015, Auto Smart terminated plaintiff’s employment for insubordination.

To survive summary judgment on a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that the employer’s conduct was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the plaintiff’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.”  On appeal, the Court noted that Eighth Circuit precedent sets a high bar for conduct to be sufficiently severe or pervasive under Title VII.  In light of its precedents, the Court found that the behavior at issue, “while certainly reprehensible and improper,” did not constitute severe or pervasive conduct so as to alter the conditions of plaintiff’s employment.  The Court noted that plaintiff only alleged one instance of unwelcome contact, and a handful of offensive remarks by her supervisor.

Paskert highlights the difference between inappropriate supervisor conduct and conduct that rises to the level of actionable hostile work environment sexual harassment under Title VII.  Employers should note, however, that federal courts across the country may interpret Title VII differently than the Eighth Circuit does and certainly based on the facts of each case.  Also, courts interpret differently the identity of the alleged harasser and that individual’s role and/or position relative to the alleged victim can also play a role in a court’s analysis.  In order to avoid (or mitigate) liability, employers should develop and implement comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, and be sure to take steps to train employees on proper workplace conduct.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Labor & Employment Team.