Hostile Warnings of Discipline and Termination After Complaint of Sex Discrimination Are Enough for Case to Go Forward, Judge Says
MILWAUKEE – Automobile giant Chrysler Group, LLC’s effort to have an U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claim of unlawful retaliation thrown out of court has failed, the agency announced today. The EEOC has received a February 17, 2011 Decision and Order from District Judge William F. Callahan, Jr., denying Chrysler’s motion for summary judgment. The judge held that the EEOC’s claims of retaliation on behalf of two women employed in the company’s national parts distribution center in Milwaukee should go forward. (EEOC v. Chrysler Group, LLC, E.D.Wis. No. 08-C-1067, Decision & Order, 2/17/2011, D.J. Callahan.)
The claims were brought by the EEOC under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a lawsuit filed in December 2009. According to the EEOC, one of the women was taken off what the court described as a “coveted position” driving a power sweeper and assigned to more physically demanding work “picking” parts to satisfy a “hot order” in the “back order area” of the warehouse. The EEOC said that when the woman and a coworker complained that a male employee with less seniority should have been assigned to that job, they were accused of “disrupting the workforce” subjected to verbal harassment and threatened with discipline up to and including termination.
Chrysler urged the court to summarily reject EEOC’s claims because the women were neither discharged nor suffered any other tangible loss such as a loss of pay, benefits, or position. According to Chrysler, “the alleged verbal harassment and intimidation is simply not the kind of actionable harm which Title VII contemplates.”
The court rejected that line of reasoning. “An adverse employment action [necessary to sustain a claim for retaliation] need not be tangible,” Judge Callahan wrote. The court then reviewed the circumstances surrounding the statements to the women, finding that “the manner in which [the manager] delivered his message to each woman matters. If he were screaming and pounding his fists on the table while threatening termination, as [the women] testified, this scenario paints a much more hostile and intimidating atmosphere than if [the manager] delivered his message in a normal tone of voice, as he contends he did.”
Because of this controversy, the court concluded, the trial should go forward to determine whether Chrysler’s behavior “would have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making a charge of discrimination.”
The EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago, John Hendrickson, said, “This is an important decision. It is a firm reminder that the concept of retaliation under the federal employment discrimination laws is a common-sense one. The Supreme Court has said that if an employer responds to a discrimination complaint in a way which would dissuade a reasonable worker from filing a charge, that’s retaliation. The EEOC will move swiftly to stem such actions.”
In addition to Hendrickson, the case is being litigated by Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour and Trial Attorneys Bradley Fiorito and Grayson Walker, all of EEOC’s Chicago District Office. The EEOC’s Chicago District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.