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7th Circuit Decisions Shows That One Act Can Create a Hostile Work Environment

Posted by attorney Randy Enochs

A recent decision out of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reveals how a single act can amount to a hostile environment, if severe enough. The plaintiff, Cynthia Berry, filed a complaint with human resources after, while on a lunch break, she was allegedly grabbed by the breasts by a male coworker, Philip Carmichael, lifted in the air, had her buttocks rubbed against the front of Carmichael's body--from his chest to his penis--three times before bringing Berry to the ground with force. Berry landed off-balance, with only one leg on the ground, and says Carmichael then pushed her into a fence. The 7th Circuit, in reversing the lower court's grant of summary judgment on the hostile work environment claim, held: With respect to Carmichael's actions, however, Berry has provided enough evidence to allow her hostile work environment claim to go forward. As the district court noted, a single act can create a hostile environment if it is severe enough, Lapka v. Chertoff, 517 F.3d 974, 983 (7th Cir. 2008); Hostetler v. Quality Dining, Inc., 218 F.3d 798, 808 (7th Cir. 2000), and instances of uninvited physical contact with intimate parts of the body are among the most severe types of sexual harassment, see Patton v. Keystone RV Co., 455 F.3d 812, 816 (7th Cir. 2006); Worth v. Tyer, 276 F.3d 249, 268 (7th Cir. 2001); Baskerville v. Culligan Int'l Co., 50 F.3d 428, 430 (7th Cir. 1995). Carmichael's actions, as alleged by Berry, qualify undeniably as unwelcome sexual conduct that established a hostile environment. In ruling that the employer was liable for Carmichael's actions, they noted how Berry presented facts to show that the supervisor she complained to, Michael Gorman, made insensitive statements and potentially sabotaged the investigation regarding the incident. Thus, this case is also another lesson for employers on training managers and supervisors on how to handle these types of complaints and what not to say to a person complaining of sexually harassing conduct. The case is Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority, No. 07-2288 (7th Cir. Aug. 23, 2010).

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