What’s an onslaught of labor and employment decisions without a juicy sexual harassment case?

Continuing the pattern of growth in labor and employment jurisprudence we’ve seen in the last several months, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision in EEOC v. Fairbrook Medical Clinic, P.A. revisited the standard governing sex-based hostile work environment claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Set in Hickory, North Carolina, this story began in 2002 when Dr. Deborah Waechter accepted a position as a physician at the Fairbrook Medical Clinic, a family-medicine practice that employed between 24 and 42 people, most of whom were women. During Waechter’s nearly four-year stint at the clinic, her immediate supervisor, a male physician who also happened to be the sole owner of the clinic, made numerous sexually-charged comments to Waechter.

Among other things, Waechter’s supervisor referred to his penis as “Mr. Happy,” made demeaning comments about female drug representatives, told dirty jokes, discussed his wife’s vagina, showed Waechter a topless picture of his wife, and told one of Waechter’s patients (while Waechter was on vacation) that Waechter was “probably screwing around so she can have another baby.” Not coincidentally, after Waechter became pregnant with her second child, the supervisor’s comments became even more personal to Waechter, as he began commenting on how big Waechter’s breasts were getting and how fat she was getting.

Following Waechter’s pregnancy, things got worse before they got better. Waechter’s supervisor inquired about her libido opined that she “was probably a wild thing in bed”, asked if he could see her breasts before she stopped pumping breast milk, and announced to Waechter and a coworker that he wanted to lick up a drop of Waechter’s breast milk.

Yes, folks, these are just some of the high points.

In early 2006, Waechter finally resigned from her job, tendering to her supervisor a resignation letter in which she thanked him for the opportunity to be subjected to all that harassment and in which she expressed her willingness to continue to be subjected to it for thirty more days. (Okay, the letter really thanked him for the chance to work at the clinic and said she would provide the courtesy of staying on for another month, but how Waechter found it within herself to write that is beyond us).

Ultimately, the EEOC – on Waechter’s behalf – filed a Title VII hostile work environment claim against the clinic where Waechter worked. Granting summary judgment for the clinic, the District Court somehow held that the supervisor’s conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed.

In concluding that the EEOC raised a triable issue with regard to the hostile work environment claim, the Fourth Circuit determined that the supervisor’s conduct was more than merely crude and vulgar commentary. It felt that the Waechter’s allegations, if proven, would show that her supervisor “targeted her with highly personalized comments designed to demean and humiliate her.” And, despite noting that otherwise abusive or hostile conduct in one setting may be normal and appropriate in another setting, the Fourth Circuit declined to credit the Employer’s argument that the supervisor’s sexually-charged conduct was less severe or pervasive because it occurred in a medical setting where Waechter and coworkers dealt with human anatomy on a daily basis.

Yes, the Employer actually tried that argument.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision in Fairbrook Medical Clinic, P.A. was, by almost any stretch, a fair and accurate interpretation of Title VII sexual harassment law. In fact, it would be hard for us to expect any other conclusion under the circumstances at that particular Clinic. It also would be hard not to find those circumstances a useful – if not obvious – reminder to employers of the dangers of off-color, shock-value commentary in the workplace, and the importance of developing, maintaining and enforcing an appropriately-written anti-harassment policy to try and prevent similar situations from occurring.

Matt Hansberry focuses his practice in the areas of employment litigation and ski-industry defense. Mr. Hansberry has defended companies and management in both federal court and state court cases. He has also defended employers before the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.
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