Vulgarity Justifies Hostile Work Environment Suit

By Staff Report

Jan. 25, 2010

A female employee subjected to considerable gender-specific vulgarity can pursue her hostile work environment claim, even though the profanity was not directed specifically at her and was common at the workplace, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Wednesday’s en banc decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in Ingrid Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. overturned a lower court’s dismissal of the case. A panel of the appeals court also ruled in Reeves’ favor in 2008. The court subsequently vacated the panel’s decision and granted a rehearing.

According to the full court’s decision, Reeves was the only woman who worked on the sales floor as a transportation sales representative in the Birmingham, Alabama, branch of the Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based shipping company from July 2001 to March 2004.

In addition to profanity that was not gender-specific, Reeves said she heard a “substantial corpus of gender-derogatory language addressed specifically to women as a group,” although the language was not directed at her specifically, according to the decision.

She was also forced to listen to a morning radio show that regularly talked about topics such as the size of women’s breasts and “elderly people having sex,” according to the decision.

After her complaints to management went unheeded, Reeves resigned and filed suit, alleging she had been subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Sexual language and discussions that truly are indiscriminate do not themselves establish sexual harassment under Title VII,” the appeals court said in its unanimous decision. “Nevertheless, a member of a protected group cannot be forced to endure pervasive, derogatory conduct and references that are gender-specific in the workplace, just because the workplace may be otherwise rife with generally indiscriminate vulgar conduct.

“Title VII does not offer boorish employers a free pass to discriminate against their employees specifically on account of gender just because they have tolerated pervasive but indiscriminate profanity as well,” the court ruled in remanding the case for further proceedings.

Filed by Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail

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