Seyfarth Synopsis: In Sellars v. CRST Expedited, Inc. Case No. C15-117-LTS (July 15, 2019), the Northern District of Iowa held that employer responses to sexual harassment complaints need not deter harassment by other employees, where the employer lacks notice that those other employees might engage in harassing behavior.

Background

CRST Expedited, Inc. is a long-haul trucking company with more than 3,000 drivers. Two drivers staff each truck. One person drives while the other rests. When drivers join CRST, “lead drivers” train rookies, who become “co-drivers” after completing training. At new driver orientation, CRST provides new drivers copies of its written policies prohibiting sexual harassment and retaliation and trains them on those policies. Those policies also outline available reporting mechanisms, and detail how CRST will respond to complaints.

The three women who filed the case worked for CRST as drivers. Each alleged that she experienced multiple episodes of harassment from multiple different lead drivers. Each complained to CRST. When they did so, CRST followed its policy by, among other things, assigning them to work with a new lead driver who had not been accused of harassment and ensuring that the alleged harasser would not be paired with another female driver. The eventual plaintiffs alleged, however, that some of the new lead drivers with whom they were paired harassed them as well.

All three women ultimately left CRST and later joined together to sue on behalf of similarly situated female truck drivers. They asserted hostile work environment, retaliation, and constructive discharge claims on behalf of the class and as individuals. Because it decertified the class in a previous order, the Sellars court only addressed the individual plaintiffs’ claims.

The Court’s Analysis

The three Plaintiffs file suit under Title VII, which prohibits sex-based discrimination that creates a hostile or abusive work environment. To prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff must establish five elements. This case turned on the element requiring a plaintiff to show that her employer “knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt and effective remedial action.”

Plaintiffs first tried to show that CRST had constructive knowledge of their harassment by pointing to prior sexual harassment lawsuits against the Company, and one employee’s suggestion that CRST install cameras on its trucks. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that past harassment complaints cannot speak to an employer’s knowledge of current incidents unless the past and current occurrences involve the same alleged harassers. Employers need not foresee employee misconduct, the court noted, absent some indication it would occur.

Plaintiffs also argued that CRST’s response to their complaints was inadequate because the Company failed to prevent future harassment. The court disagreed, finding it significant that after Plaintiffs complained, CRST followed its policy by (1) promptly removing them from the truck with the alleged harasser ; (2) marking the alleged harasser as “male only”; (3) paying for any necessary lodging and return fares; and (4) pairing Plaintiffs with new lead drivers who had never been accused of harassment. That response, the court observed, prevented the alleged bad actor from harassing the Plaintiff or any other women and quickly addressed the immediate circumstances surrounding the harassment.

In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected the Plaintiffs’ reliance on Ninth Circuit precedent that requires an employer’s remedial responses to deter future harassers. Instead, the court concluded that imposing liability on CRST would punish the Company for failing to respond to an employee action that had not occurred and that CRST had no reason to suspect would happen. That, said the court, “is liability without end” and exceeds Title VII’s requirement that employers have knowledge of the harassment and respond reasonably. Measuring CRST’s response instead by what it knew at the time of the complaints and how it acted in response, the court found CRST was entitled to summary judgment.

Lessons Learned

CRST escaped liability despite some evidence of persistent sexual harassment issues involving its lead drivers. Key employer takeaways include:

  • It is important to develop, implement, and consistently enforce written sexual harassment policies that swiftly address reports of harassment; remedy the circumstances that lead to complaints; and prevent future abuse by credibly accused harassers.
  • It is equally important to ensure that new employees receive those policies, receive training on the policies, and that all employees receive periodic reminders about the policies.
  • Finally, it is advisable to periodically review and revise policies, particularly when a complaint serves in some way as notice of a potential deficiency in your existing response.