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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. International Profit Associates

July 14, 2008

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
INTERNATIONAL PROFIT ASSOCIATES, INC. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Defendant International Profit Associates, Inc. ("IPA") has moved for summary judgment against individual claimants Nos. 6, 65, 89, 93, 99, and 170 in this class action suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC"). For the reasons set forth below, IPA's motions for summary judgment with respect to Claimants Nos. 89, 99, and 170 are granted. IPA's motions for summary judgment with respect to Claimants No. 6, 65, and 93 are denied.

I. BACKGROUND

Pursuant to the court's memorandum opinion and order of October 23, 2007 (the "October 23rd Order"), this case has been bifurcated into two phases. See E.E.O.C. v. Int'l Profit Assocs., Inc., No. 1 C 4427, 2007 WL 3120069, at *17 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 23, 2007). In Phase I, the EEOC must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the sexual harassment that occurred at IPA during the relevant time period, taken as a whole, was so severe or pervasive that a reasonable woman would find the work environment at IPA to be hostile or abusive. Id. Furthermore, the EEOC must also demonstrate that IPA knew, or should have known, that regular or systematic sexual harassment was occurring in its offices but did not take adequate steps to address the problem. Id. A finding in the EEOC's favor at Phase I will allow the court to award prospective relief under Int'l Brotherhood of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 335-36 (1977), and the court will then proceed to Phase II. Int'l Profit Assocs., Inc., 2007 WL 3120069, at *17.

In Phase II, the EEOC will be required to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that each individual claimant who seeks monetary damages experienced sex-based harassment that an objectively reasonable woman would find severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment. Id. The EEOC must also demonstrate that each claimant subjectively perceived the harassment she experienced to be hostile or abusive. Id. The burden of production on the negligence element of the individual class members' claims, however, will be shifted to IPA if the jury returns a verdict in the EEOC's favor at the pattern or practice phase. Id. If IPA comes forward with evidence demonstrating that it was not negligent with respect to a particular class member, the burden will shift back to the EEOC to demonstrate that the steps IPA took were inadequate. Id. If the harassment any individual claimant experienced was perpetrated by a supervisor, rather than a co-worker, IPA will bear the burden of establishing an affirmative defense to its liability for the supervisor's harassment, if applicable. If IPA cannot do so, it will be held strictly liable for such harassment so long as the EEOC meets its burden with respect to the other elements. Id.

The EEOC must also make individual showings with respect to the amount of compensatory and punitive damages to which each claimant is entitled. Id. If punitive damages are awarded, the court will closely examine each award to ensure that the parameters of BMW v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996)and State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003), as prescribed in the October 23rd Order,are met. Id.

II. ANALYSIS

Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In order to avoid summary judgment, the nonmoving party (the EEOC in the instant case) is required to set forth "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). Furthermore, it must produce more than a scintilla of evidence in support of its position. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). Moreover, summary judgment standards are applied with greater scrutiny in employment discrimination cases, in which intent and credibility are crucial issues. See Talanda v. KFC Nat'l Management Co., 140 F.3d 1090, 1095 (7th Cir. 1998).

In the instant case, the court will approach each motion for summary judgment with respect to an individual claimant as though the court has already found in Phase I that the EEOC has proved (by a preponderance of the evidence) that sexual harassment occurred at IPA during the relevant time period and, taken as a whole, it was so severe or pervasive that a reasonable woman would find the work environment at IPA to be hostile or abusive. Furthermore, the court will presume that the EEOC has also demonstrated that IPA knew, or should have known, that regular or systematic sexual harassment was occurring in its offices but did not take adequate steps to address the problem. To succeed in its instant motions for summary judgment with respect to each of the individual claimants, IPA must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact concerning: (1) whether each claimant experienced sex-based harassment that an objectively reasonable woman would find severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment; and (2) whether each claimant subjectively perceived the harassment she experienced to be hostile or abusive. Since the latter burden is not an onerous one, it is the former upon which the court will focus its analysis.

As an initial matter, the EEOC argues that because (for purposes of these motions for summary judgment) the court presumes that IPA has been found liable for maintaining a pattern or practice of severe and pervasive sexual harassment to which its female workers were collectively subjected, the analysis of the individual claimant's claims is different from that of a woman filing an individual claim. The EEOC suggests, by way of example, that an inference that a certain behavior constitutes a sexual proposition might be reasonable under the court's analysis in the present circumstances whereas it might be unreasonable in an individual suit.

Title VII's prohibition against discrimination in employment on the basis of sex encompasses sexual harassment that is sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the employee's terms or conditions of employment. See Meritor Sav. Bank FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 73 (1986); Bernier v. Morningstar, Inc., 495 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 2007); see also Jackson v. County of Racine, 474 F.3d 493, 499 (7th Cir. 2007) ("One of the ways in which Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment may be violated is through sexual harassment that is either severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive working environment"). The test for determining whether sexual harassment has reached the point of affecting terms and conditions of employment inquires whether the complaining person: (1) was subject to unwelcome sexual harassment in the form of sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature; (2) the harassment was based on his or her sex; (3) the harassment had the effect of unreasonably interfering with her work performance in creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment that seriously affected her psychological well-being; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability. Benders v. Bellows and Bellows, 515 F.3d 757, 768 (7th Cir. 2008); Valentine v. City of Chicago, 452 F.3d 670, 677 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Bernier, 495 F.3d at 373. The court presumes that the claimant, for the purposes of this motion for summary judgment, has prevailed in Phase I, and therefore the claimant's burden of meeting the requirements for establishing employer liability, as described above in element (4) has already been satisfied.*fn1

The court's October 23rd order establishes that each claimant bears the burden of individually establishing that she was subject to sexual harassment under both the objective and subjective standards recited above. However, that does not mean that the court, when examining the nature and severity of the harassment claims of each claimant in Phase II, must turn a blind eye to the findings of Phase I concerning the existence of pervasive and severe hostile environment. If a claimant has been exposed to all or most of the incidents proven by the EEOC in Phase I, that claimant will have little or no burden on the objectively severe and pervasive element in Phase II. Furthermore, even if an individual claimant was not the direct object of a sexually harassing act, but was subject to an atmosphere that was objectively and subjectively sufficiently hostile so as to alter the working environment, that may be enough, in the context of the workplace environment established in Phase I, to survive a motion for summary judgment.

Incidents directed at others and not at the claimant have relevance in demonstrating the existence of a hostile work environment. Gleason v. Mesirow Fin. Corp., 118 F.3d 1134, 1144 (7th Cir. 1997); see also Hirase-Doi v. U.S. West Communications, Inc., 61 F.3d 777, 782 (10th Cir. 1995). An individual could be in the "target area" of harassment, i.e., a member of a group being vilified, even if not singled out, and, if the harassment is sufficiently severe and pervasive, still bring an actionable claim of sexual harassment. Yuknis v. First Student, Inc., 481 F.3d 552, 554 (7th Cir. 2007). Target area harassment, as defined by the Seventh Circuit, need not include an intention of causing distress or offense. Id. A working environment may be deeply offensive or hurtful to women "even though the men who created it were merely trying to please themselves and were thus guilty of insensitivity rather than aggression." Id.; see also Markham v. White, 172 F.3d 4486, 492 (7th Cir. 1999). Although the severity and pervasiveness of the alleged hostile work environment must be viewed in the totality of the circumstances, the creation of a hostile work environment is actionable under Title VII when the hostility is to a group (or specific members of a group), such as women, who are protected by the statute. Yuknis, 481 F.3d at 554.

A. Defendant No. 6

Defendant No. 6 ("No. 6") was employed in the Inside Sales Department at IPA for approximately six weeks from November to mid-December 2000. During her orientation at IPA, No. 6, who was the only woman present, claims that she was subjected to offensively sexist language concerning the inability of women to make up their minds, and references to another woman (not present) as a "bitch." Subsequently, No. 6 alleges that she frequently overheard male co-workers talking among themselves about the various physical attributes of sundry "hot babes" of their acquaintance. According to No. 6, one man, allegedly a star performer in the Sales Department, was in the habit of yelling "fucker, cock-sucking bitch, cunt, whore" whenever a prospective ...


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