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7th Circuit: Expansive Time Span for Hostile Work Environment Claims Confirmed

By Rachel K. Alexander   1/11/2008

A hostile work environment for purposes of an employee’s harassment claim is a single event that may include conduct spanning years prior to the filing of a charge, according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Elizabeth Bright worked at a Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc. facility in Richmond, Ind., for almost three years prior to filing a hostile work environment charge and lawsuit. Bright alleged that the hostile work environment dated back to when she started working.

Prior to trial, the trial judge ruled that Bright could introduce evidence of harassment spanning her entire employment, even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and corresponding Indiana law limited the scope of illegal conduct to that occurring 300 days before the filing of Bright’s charge.

The trial judge based his ruling on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision ( National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101 (2002)) that a hostile work environment was a single unlawful practice that could be based on unlawful conduct spanning more than 300 days.

However, despite his earlier ruling, the trial judge changed his position during the trial on Bright’s claim, limiting Bright to evidence of conduct occurring no more than 300 days before the filing of her charge. The trial judge also ruled that Bright could not introduce any evidence relating to a series of events related to pornographic images because the company had disciplined the alleged offenders.

The 7th Circuit reversed, determining that Bright should have been allowed to introduce evidence pertaining to all alleged instances of harassment, including those occurring more than 300 days before her charge and those related to the pornography incidents. The court’s decision was based primarily on the same 2002 Supreme Court decision that the trial court initially relied on to determine that all instances amounting to a hostile work environment would be considered a single event. The court also relied on its own 2007 decision in Isaacs v. Hill’s Pet NutritionInc. (485 F.3d 383 (7th Cir. 2007)), a case involving one of Bright’s co-workers, that a hostile work environment amounted to a single event even when the employee in question had worked in separate departments for the employer.

The court additionally let Bright introduce evidence regarding conduct involving certain pornographic material, even though the company remedied the pornography issue by disciplining the offenders. The 7th Circuit determined that Bright could introduce such evidence because the fact that the employer remedied the alleged problem does not affect the employee’s ability to introduce evidence of the underlying problem.

Instead, the court reasoned that when an employee introduces evidence of harassment, the employer may simply introduce counter-evidence that it remedied the problem to show that it is not ultimately responsible for the offensive conduct.

Bright v. Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc ., 7th Cir., No. 06-3927 (Dec. 21, 2007).

Professional Pointer: This case shows that it is increasingly important for employers to take the preventive and corrective measures discussed in Faragher v. Boca Raton (524 U.S. 775 (1998)), including implementing proper anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training and drafting an effective discrimination and harassment complaint procedure.

Rachel K. Alexander is an attorney with the firm Berens & Tate PC, LLO, a Worklaw® Networkaffiliate in Omaha, Neb.

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

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