The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a $1.5 million verdict against a high-tech company for a manager’s sexual harassment and retaliation against three female employees.
The defendant, New Breed Logistics, now known as XPO Logistics-Supply Chain, is based in High Point, NC.
The company provides a number of services to consumers to improve the warehouse operations through technological advancements and infrastructure.
Refused his advances
The three temporary female workers involved were employees of the New Breed Memphis, Tennessee, warehouse. The employees alleged the supervisor sexually harassed them and terminated them after they refused his advances.
The EEOC filed suit against the company in 2010 for violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The lower court found in favor of the EEOC.
On appeal the defendant argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law or a new trial for the retaliation and the sexual harassment verdict.
The Supervisor’s Illegal Actions
The female employees testified the supervisor began making sexual comments several times a day. A fellow forklift driver, working in the same department, overheard the comments.
One female employee stated the comments often involved physical contact. On one occasion after an employee requested he cease his advances, the supervisor responded, “he wasn’t going to get in trouble, that he ran the area and anyone who [told] on him would be fired.”
All three female employees were fired on separate occasions. The male employee who stood up for the female workers also lost his job. The company alleged his termination was due to time clock improprieties.
Two female employees were transferred to different departments prior to their termination. The transfers occurred after an anonymous complaint was filed through a company-sponsored hotline.
The matter was barely investigated, according to the opinion–the investigator only asked the harassing supervisor five questions and failed to speak to any additional employees or witnesses.
The former supervisor falsely informed the new department head, that she would need to keep an eye on the employees because they “liked to start altercations.”
Title VII Claims
To prevail in a Title VII retaliation claim the EEOC had to establish that the claimants:
- Engaged in an activity covered by Title VII
- The defendants knew of the protected activity;
- Thereafter the defendant took adverse action against the plaintiffs; and
- A causal connection existed between the protected activity and the materially adverse action. Taylor v. Geithner, 703 F.3d 328, 336 (6th Cir. 2013).
The defense argued that telling a supervisor to stop his actions did not constitute a protected activity under Title VII. However, the court believed the opposite was true–that a protected activity can be simply telling a manager to stop. Protection exists not only for filing formal complaints but complaints to management.
The court also believed the jury could have reasonably concluded the former supervisor influenced the new supervisor’s decision to recommend termination for two female employees.
Although the supervisor attributed the termination to poor performance, the employees were only in the department for one week. The only conversation between the supervisors occurred on the day the employee was terminated and when the former supervisor disparaged the females work ethic.
The court quickly addressed the causation argument stating the terminations would not have occurred but for the disparaging remarks given by the harassing supervisor and his actions were motivated by retaliation.
The court ultimately concluded the district court did not err in its decision to deny the defendant a judgment as a matter of law or new trial on the issue of damages, retaliation and violations under Title VII. The jury was presented with sufficient evidence that the conduct by the supervisors made New Breed vicariously liable for the illegal actions.
This case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. New Breed Logistics, Case No. 13-6250, United State District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Memphis.