The Bright Decision

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently ordered a new trial in a hostile working environment case based on the trial court’s inappropriate time and subject limitations on the evidence that the employee was allowed to submit. Relevant facts in the case of Bright v. Hill's Pet Nutrition, http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/fdocs/docs.fwx?submit=rss_sho&shofile=06-3927_034.pdf are as follows: Ms. Bright worked for the company for nearly three years. She was transferred from one work team to another after 10 months of employment. Bright presented evidence that men with whom she worked engaged in a persistent and ongoing campaign against female employees that included unwelcome sexual overtures, refusals to train the female employees unless they agreed to look at pornography, persistent attacks of a misogynistic nature, and acts of violence, one of which resulted in the death of Bright’s dog. The company generally ignored her complaints, although it did address the complaints of pornography and suspended 11 male employees approximately two years after Bright started working for the company. The trial court held that Bright could not rely on evidence of events that occurred before the 300-day filing limitations period, i.e., more than 300 days before the date on which she filed her EEOC discrimination charge. The trial court also prohibited Bright from presenting any evidence relating to pornography based on the employer’s remedial actions.

On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, the employer argued that the trial court correctly found that Bright could not include acts outside the 300-day filing limitations period because (1) she transferred positions within the company, and (2) Hill’s took action with respect to some of her concerns, which had the effect of “restarting the clock.” The Seventh Circuit rejected these arguments, holding that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101 (2002), and the Seventh Circuit’s own decision in another discrimination case involving Hill’s required a different result.

In Morgan, the Supreme Court held that a charge of discrimination based on a hostile work environment includes events that occurred before the statutory time period so long as the last act of alleged harassment took place within the allowable time period. The Seventh Circuit determined that the trial court misapplied precedent and that the evidence predating the statutory filing period was relevant to the “totality of the hostile environment” in which Bright worked. Moreover, the court held that although the employer may have remedied some of the harassment related to pornography, this did not mean that evidence of pre-remedy pornography should be excluded at trial. 

“Take Away” for Employers

This decision again makes clear that employees may be permitted to rely on events that occurred long before the 300-day filing limitations period so long as they file a discrimination charge within 300 days of the last act of harassment in a hostile environment case. This means that employers could be required to counter evidence of alleged harassment that occurred years before a charge was filed in a hostile environment case. The only way to avoid the potentially significant cost and other problems arising from defending against such evidence is to properly investigate all harassment allegations and take appropriate remedial steps to prevent recurrence of any illicit behavior. That is why employers should institute an ongoing program focusing on proactive identification, elimination, and prevention of workplace harassment. An effective method for doing so is to adopt a comprehensive policy, communicate it to employees, and train managers to implement it on a consistent and ongoing basis.