Every supervisor is trained to avoid inappropri- ate behavior. Those that fail to do so can lead an employer down a long road of litigation and attor- neys’ fees. Prime example: Ponte v. Steelcase, Inc.
Rides to the hotel
The plaintiff was hired by Steelcase Inc. in June 2010 as an Area Manager based in New England. Her direct supervisor, the company’s Regional Manager for Eastern Healthcare Sales, oversaw the hiring.
The company’s sales of office furnishings are primarily conducted through dealers. On July 15, the plaintiff’s supervisor received an e-mail from a key dealer inform- ing him that the plaintiff had failed to attend a scheduled meeting. The e-mail went on to outline various other problems during her first three weeks on the job.
Shortly after the supervisor received the e-mail, he and the plaintiff attended a training seminar at Steelcase’s headquarters. Following a dinner after the seminar, the supervisor offered to drive the plaintiff back to her hotel. During the roughly 15-minute drive, he allegedly put his hand on the plaintiff’s right shoulder and left it there for about a minute. The plaintiff also claimed that the super- visor told her that he’d done a lot to get her the job and that she owed it to him to do “the right thing by him.”
The plaintiff told two other trainees about the car ride. Both testified that the plaintiff had said that she “had an interesting car ride back to the hotel,” and that she’d said “something like [the supervisor] hit on her.”
On a subsequent night during the same training, the plaintiff alleged that the supervisor again offered to drive her to her hotel. During this ride, he allegedly put his hand on her shoulder once again — this time for most
of the 15-minute ride. The plaintiff didn’t mention the incident to her peers, nor did she report either incident to anyone at Steelcase.
Pair of phone calls
Several days after the training, the plaintiff called the head of Steelcase’s HR department and expressed con- cerns about losing her job because she was late and unprepared for a recent meeting she’d had with one of her dealers. The HR head offered to accompany the plain- tiff to a meeting with the supervisor to discuss the issue. The plaintiff declined, not mentioning the two question- able car rides or alleging any improper conduct.
Months later, around February or March 2011, the plain- tiff called the HR head again. This time she expressed concerns about a perceived lack of support from her supervisor. The plaintiff also “thought a lot of it was related to something that happened in July.” She didn’t go into details, however, and didn’t characterize the “something” as sexual harassment.
Between March and May, the supervisor received several more complaints from dealers regarding the plaintiff’s job performance. Around mid-May, the supervisor went to New England and met with her. His notes from the meet- ing indicate that he thought the plaintiff’s ability to “lead the sales effort [was] questionable.” The supervisor later testified that the May visit was when he began seriously considering terminating the plaintiff.
This termination ultimately happened on May 27. Soon after, the plaintiff filed suit, alleging claims of sexual harassment and retaliation. The district court granted Steelcase’s motion for summary judgment, and the plain- tiff appealed.
To proceed under her sexual harassment claims, the plaintiff needed to show that the harassing conduct alleged was “sufficiently severe or pervasive,” as well as both objectively and subjectively offensive. In her complaint, she alleged the two car rides demonstrated sufficient severity. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that these two incidents, despite being inappropriate, weren’t egregious enough to evince a hos- tile work environment. Indeed, the plaintiff herself didn’t even refer to them as “sexual harassment” when she spoke with the HR head.
The plaintiff’s second claim was that her termination was, rather than a result of poor performance, a retalia- tory response to her complaints about her supervisor.
Regarding such Title VII retaliation claims, the court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that a plaintiff must now establish that her protected activity was a “but for” cause of the alleged adverse action.
Here, the plaintiff alleged that her protected activity was the February or March phone call complaining about a lack of support from her supervisor. But the call, which came several months after the incidents, was far from a clear complaint about harassment.
The First Circuit further held that, even if the HR call could be characterized as a clear complaint, the plaintiff couldn’t show that her poor performance reviews (which came from others besides the supervisor) played no part in her termination. Accordingly, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision.
Years of litigation
This case shows how critical it is to properly train and reg- ularly remind supervisors to avoid inappropriate situations with subordinates. In less than a year of employment, the plaintiff amassed a large number of complaints from mul- tiple parties. Yet, despite this paper trail, years of litigation ensued because of her supervisor’s dicey decisions.
In Ponte v. Steelcase, Inc. (see main article), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held in favor of the employer in large part because the plaintiff alleged only two relatively isolated incidents of harassment. The court did note, however, that isolated incidents may sufficiently evince a hostile work environment if they’re sufficiently egregious.
The case of Ayissi-Etoh v. Fannie Mae, heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, provides an example. Here the plaintiff, an African- American male recently promoted to a leadership role, got into a heated disagreement with his supervisor over the extent of his job duties. The argu- ment culminated with the supervisor allegedly ordering the plaintiff out of his office — punctuating the remark with a racial epithet.
Although the supervisor was eventually terminated following an independent investigation, the plaintiff sued his employer for, among other things, a hos- tile work environment. The district court held that a single utterance couldn’t support a hostile work environment claim. But the appellate court reasoned that “perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employ- ment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as [the one used by the] supervisor.” Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s ruling.