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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
As part of our commitment to assist and educate employees in fighting back against the abusive employment practices of employers, we offer a broad range of information about employment law issues in our employment blog

Must An Employee’s Work Environment Reach The Point Of “Hellishness” To Create A Hostile Work Environment?

woman yelling at her staff

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), employees are protected from discrimination on the basis of sex.  Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.  In Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court held that sexual harassment violates Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination when the harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms, conditions, or privileges of the victim’s employment and create a hostile work environment.  Whether an environment is hostile depends on the totality of the circumstances and courts consider a variety of factors, including:  the frequency of the harassment; the severity of the harassment; whether the harassment is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether the harassment unreasonably interferes with the victim’s work performance. Read on to learn more about what constitutes a hostile work environment and whether a hellish work environment needs to be a factor for hostility.

Methods Used By Courts To Dismiss Sexual Harassment Cases

Having litigated sexual harassment cases for almost twenty years, our Citrus County, Florida sexual harassment attorneys have learned that courts often use buzzwords or descriptive phrases to justify their dismissal of hostile work environment sexual harassment claims.  For example, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Meriwether v. Caraustar Packaging Co., 326 F.3d 990 (8th Cir. 2003) declared that to support a cause of action for hostile work environment sexual harassment, “the conduct must be extreme and not merely rude or unpleasant to affect the terms and conditions of employment.”  Likewise, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Suarez v. Pueblo Int’l, Inc., 229 F.3d 49 (1st Cir. 2000) stated that “[t]he workplace is not a cocoon, and those who labor in it are expected to have reasonably thick skins—thick enough, at least, to survive the ordinary slings and arrows that workers routinely encounter in a hard, cold world.”  The purpose and effect of such language is to trivialize the abuse environments endured by employees and immunize employers from liability for hostile work environment harassment claims.

Courts also utilize judicially created tests to construct a high bar that victims must clear to bring hostile work environment sexual harassment claims before a jury  Some courts have reduced a hostile work environment analysis to a mathematical equation and count up the number of incidents of harassment to determine whether a hostile work environment existed.  These courts customarily rule that the victim did not satisfy the mathematical baseline for actionable behavior and dismiss the case.  Other courts use the appalling conduct alleged in prior cases to mark the boundary of what constitutes an actionable hostile work environment.  These courts invariably recount the parade of appalling conduct in other cases, announce that the line has not been crossed, and dismiss the case.

Another Judicial Buzzword:  A “Hellish” Environment

In long line of decisions, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has used the buzzword “hellish” to describe an actionable hostile work environment.  In constructing a high bar that victims must clear to establish a hostile work environment harassment claim, the Seventh Circuit stated in Rogers v. City of Chicago, 320 F.3d 748 (7th Cir. 2003) that “[t]he occasional vulgar banter, tinged with sexual innuendo, of coarse or boorish workers, would be neither pervasive nor offensive enough to be actionable.”  Rather, the Seventh Circuit proclaimed, “[t]he workplace that is actionable is the one that is hellish.”

In declaring that a victim must work in a “hellish” environment, these courts routinely rule that the victim did not clear the judicially constructed high bar to establish a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim.  For example, these courts habitually declare that the harassment was nothing more than “isolated incidents,” “sporadic, offensive comments,” “unpleasant,” or “mildly offensive.”  Likewise, these courts customarily find that although the behavior was perhaps inappropriate, regrettable, and should be cause for concern, the conduct was not so extreme that it created an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile.  These courts also invariably justify their dismissal of sexual harassment cases by pointing to other decisions using buzzwords like “hellish” to describe an actionable hostile work environment claim and declaring that other courts have rejected hostile work environment sexual harassment claims based on facts equally or more egregious than the conduct at issue.

A “Hellish” Environment Is Not The Standard

In its recent decision in Johnson v. Advocate Health and Hospital Corp., 892 F.3d 887 (7th Cir. June 8, 2018), the Seventh Circuit expressly rejected its long standing fatally flawed approach to a hostile work environment analysis.  In reversing the trial court’s dismissal of a racial hostile work environment harassment claim, the Seventh Circuit determined that a victim’s “environment need not reach the point of ‘hellishness,’ as some cases once argued.”  In extinguishing a tortured standard advocated by employers and adopted by courts in dismissing untold numbers of hostile work environment harassment cases, the Seventh Circuit finally acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard “dictates that the [harassment] must be only so severe or pervasive so as to affect the terms and conditions of employment.”  The Supreme Court’s standard for an actionable hostile work environment, the Seventh Circuit conceded, “is a far cry from hellish.”

Free Consultation With Citrus County Sexual Harassment Attorneys

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have been in the trenches for almost twenty years fighting for the rights of sexual harassment victims.  If you have experienced sexual harassment at work or have questions about what type of behavior creates a hostile work environment, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Citrus County, Florida sexual harassment lawyers. Our employee rights law firm takes sexual harassment cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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