The Federal District Court in Danville, Virginia recently dismissed a claim of retaliatory discharge by a male plaintiff fired for encouraging a female employee to complain about his supervisor’s jokes about public hair and male anatomy. The Court found that, while the employee thought that the alleged jokes were unlawful sexual harassment, his belief was not objectively reasonable. Rather, the alleged jokes were merely crude and boorish, and not severe or pervasive enough to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. The case is Crews v. Ennis, Inc., Civil Action No. 4:12-cv-00009 (W.D. Va. Nov. 27, 2012).
The plaintiff, James Crews, worked for Ennis, Inc., a print media manufacturer with an operating plant in Chatham, Virginia. During Crews’ employment, a new Production Manager, Patrick Eimers, became his supervisor. Eimers made sexually crude remarks on two occasions in front of Crews and other male employees. Crews then communicated these comments to a female coworker, with whom he discussed filing a sexual harassment claim. Soon thereafter, Crews was terminated for “inciting employees to file a grievance against the Company.” Based upon these events, Crews filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In defending the lawsuit, Ennis, Inc. moved for Summary Judgment, arguing that “[h]arassment is only actionable under Title VII if it is so ‘severe or pervasive’ that it creates an abusive work environment and alters the conditions of the victim’s employment.” While Crews believed that the harassment he complained of was unlawful discrimination, the court, in granting Summary Judgment and dismissing the lawsuit, ruled that Crews’ belief was “not objectively reasonable” and failed, as a matter of law, to sufficiently allege any violation of law.
This case shows why companies should implement a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual harassment, as the litigation, though unsuccessful, likely cost the company thousands in legal fees. Nevertheless, the case also shows that the law will not allow employees to take advantage of inappropriate statements to incite other employees to bring unsupported legal claims against a company.