• Eighth Circuit Holds That Store Manager's Allegations Do Not Rise to the Level of Sexual Harassment
  • November 20, 2009
  • Law Firm: Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren Ltd. - Minneapolis Office
  • The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Anderson v. Family Dollar Stores, 579 F.3d 858 (8th Cir. 2009) held that “ungentlemanly” and “inappropriate” conduct does not rise to the level of sexual harassment. The Court hears appeals from U.S. District Courts in the states of Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri and Arkansas. This appeal arose from a case decided by a District Court in Arkansas.

    Factual Background: Family Dollar hired plaintiff to train as a manager at its store in Hardy, Arkansas. However, the manager at the store terminated plaintiff after one day on the job. The plaintiff complained to the Human Resources Department, who arranged for an interview with the District Manager, Drew White. Mr. White re-hired plaintiff and placed her in a five-week training program. During her training period, plaintiff alleged that Mr. White rubbed her shoulders, her back, and her hands, and acted in a “flirtatious” manner.” At one point, Mr. White insinuated that if plaintiff engaged in sex with him, she would progress quickly in the company.

    After plaintiff completed her training program, Mr. White assigned her to be the manager at the Family Dollar Store in Hardy, Arkansas. During her first week as manager, plaintiff made several telephone calls to Mr. White with job-related complaints. Plaintiff alleged that during one of these calls, Mr. White told her that he was in a motel room in Florida and said that she ought to be right here in bed with him and a Mai Tai “kicking up.” On another occasion he called her “baby doll.” Later, Mr. White came to the Family Dollar store in Hardy and plaintiff told him in person of her problems with employees, security issues at the store, and issues concerning her job responsibilities. Plaintiff alleged that Mr. White told her, “You're just not going to be one of my girls, are you?” He then terminated her employment.

    Plaintiff sued, alleging that she was subject to a hostile work environment and “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Family Dollar, holding that the plaintiff had not established sufficient facts to state a claim of sexual harassment.

    The Court’s Ruling: First, the plaintiff contended that she established a claim for hostile work environment. Federal law under Title VII and Arkansas State Law makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against employees on the basis of gender. To prove a hostile work environment claim, plaintiff needed to prove that she was subject to an “objectively offensive environment.” An “objectively offensive environment” is one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, examining all of the circumstances, such as “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating or a mere offensive utterance, and whether the conduct is so severe or pervasive that it unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance.” The Eighth Circuit held that plaintiff’s allegations did not rise to that level. While the Court noted that Mr. White’s conduct was “ungentlemanly” and “inappropriate,” it was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive working environment.

    Second, the plaintiff also alleged “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is “quid pro quo” if a tangible employment action occurs after an employee refuses to submit to a supervisor’s sexual demands. In this case, the Eighth Circuit determined that the plaintiff suffered no adverse tangible employment action taken as a result of her refusal to submit to an implied or inferred demand for sexual favors. The Court held that plaintiff’s allegations that during training Mr. White insinuated that she would go further in the company if she submitted to his sexual demands, and his comment regarding being in bed with him in Florida, were not followed by an adverse tangible employment action. In fact, after plaintiff’s training period, Mr. White promoted her to the position of manager. The Court determined that there was no evidence to suggest that plaintiff’s termination was in any way related to those comments by Mr. White.

    What This Means for Employers: In this case, the Eighth Circuit applied established precedent regarding claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Court reiterated that to prove a sexual harassment claim based upon a hostile work environment, the plaintiff needs to prove an “objectively offensive environment” and that the plaintiff needs to prove an “adverse tangible employment action to prevail in a “quid pro quo” harassment claim. This case highlights that the burden is relatively high for a plaintiff to prove a sexual harassment claim. However, even though the employer prevailed in this case, it was undoubtedly time-consuming and expensive for the employer to defend such an action. The best practice for employers is to provide adequate sexual harassment training in the workplace in order to train managers that any harassing conduct based on sex is prohibited.