The law must reflect the everyday reality of all Americans. If the law is not grounded in reality, it is no longer "the law." It becomes something oppressive. Judge Tate, a long-time judge on the Fifth Circuit, used to say that an appellate decision should make sense to a barber in Ville Platte, Louisiana. He meant that any decision should be "explainable" to an average person. The recent decision in EEOC v. Boh Brothers Construction Co., L.L.C., No. 11-30770 (5th Cir. 9/27/13), reflects the reality I understand. But, I am struck by the two dissents. The decision is en banc, meaning the entire court heard the case. The en banc decision overturns the previous decision by a smaller panel of judges.
In EEOC v. Boh Brothers, the EEOC represented Kerry Woods, an iron worker in New Orleans. His supervisor, Chuck Wolfe, harassed Mr. Woods because, in Mr. Wolfe’s view, Mr. Woods was not masculine enough. The EEOC accused the employer of creating a hostile work environment. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded compensatory and punitive damages. Mr. Wolfe supervised a crew of five. He was vulgar and ribbed his men constantly. Within a year, Mr. Woods became the supervisor’s primary target. Mr. Wolfe referred to Woods as "pu–y," "princess," "fa-ot," to or three times a day. About two or three times a week, when Mr. Woods would bend down to pick something up, supervisor Wolfe would approach him from behind and simulate anal sex. Mr. Woods felt embarrassed and humiliated. The supervisor would urinate during work and wave to Woods and smile while doing so.
According to Mr. Wolfe, some of the teasing started when Mr. Woods said he brought wet wipes with him for lunch. According to the supervisor, the co-workers teased him about that. Mr. Wolfe said if you bring that to work, then you should not tell anyone. He said it was feminine to use wet ones.
The iron worker complained to the foreman who did nothing. Within a few months, Mr. Woods asked to see a co-workers’ time sheets. Mr. Wolfe said that was a terminable offense. He said Mr. Woods did not fit in. He was "different." The supervisor said he was "done with" Mr. Woods. The iron worker was then transferred. Mr. Woods then complained to the general superintendent. The superintendent investigated, found the supervisor’s conduct to be unprofessional, but did not rise to the level of sex harassment.
A few months later, Boh Brothers laid off Mr. Woods. He filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging sex harassment. The jury found in his favor. The employer appealed. The first panel overturned the jury verdict, saying there was insufficient evidence to support the jury result.
The plaintiff then appealed to the en banc court, which upheld the jury verdict. The majority found that there was sufficient evidence to show that the supervisor harassed Mr. Woods because of his sex, because he was not "manly" enough. The supervisor, said the majority, was engaging in sex stereotyping. Supervisor Wolfe specifically said he targeted Mr. Woods’ masculinity. The majority opinion noted it had to draw all inferences in favor of the plaintiff. The majority noted that the seminal decision regarding same sex harassment, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), states that the courts cannot impose a "code of civility" on the workplace. The court must also display some sensitivity to the social context of the alleged harassment. But, as the majority noted, this analysis is necessarily fact specific. Social context is a jury issue, not a judge issue.
There are three dissents to this decision, but two which cause me some concern. Two dissents reflect a lack of respect for the role of the jury. And, in my opinion, these two dissents seek to impose on the jury a wrong-headed view of the all-male workplace.
In Judge Jones’ dissent, she acknowledges the supervisor’s vulgar and crude remarks. She claims there is no "hard" proof that the supervisor’s conduct was motivated by gender. Okay, but the jury was persuaded there was just such evidence. Judge Jones is drawing no inference in favor of the jury verdict. In the judge’s view, the majority decision imposes a "speech code" on the public. In her view, these epithets were not related to sex. The judge persists in according no deference to the jury’s view that the speech did indeed concern sex. The judge adds that "everyone" knows what sex stereotyping is. Opinion, at 48. She argues that in Mr. Woods’ workplace, crude sexual epithets are very common. Again, the judge is substituting her opinion for that of the jury. In our legal system, the jury has the responsibility to find or recognize social norms. In the civil legal system, used in such countries as France and most of Europe, a well-trained judge has the duty to recognize social norms. But, in our legal system, inherited from England, that duty belongs to a jury of our peers.
And, on a personal level, I find her contention to be simply wrong. I served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve for 28 years, most of that time in the Infantry. The Infantry is definitely an all-male environment. I also worked in several civilian all-male workplaces, from warehouses, to road crews to one month digging ditches for a sprinkler company. "Crude sexual epithets" were not the norm, at all. In fact, the sort of harassing exhibited by Chuck Wolfe would get him "run off" or fired from any construction crew I was a part of. The judge is right that things are more crude on a work crew. But, too much harassing causes tension. Tension decreases efficiency. Decreased efficiency on a work crew will not be tolerated. Judge Jones displays a simplistic, paternalistic view of the all-male work environment. Worse, she minimizes the evidence presented at trial.
For one week, I once worked for Sears delivering major appliances. My driver and my boss was one of those "crude" persons Judge Jones describes. His name was Robert or Roberto. It was hard to hear him in the loud truck. The cab was not air conditioned, so the windows were always down. Being the college kid I was, I would always respond with "pardon me" when the noise was too loud. He loved that. He would guffaw loudly and proclaim, "no pardon needed!" I knew even then that, if I had made crude sexual epithets toward other workers, Robert would have "run" me off or had me fired. He just would not have tolerated unnecessary tension. Tension decreases efficiency. And, yes, even blue collar folks have some manners.
Judge Smith’s dissent is similar. He ascribes the majority’s opinion to the realm of "political correctness and social engineering." Opinion, at 62. Judge Smith remarkably cites evidence to contradict the jury’s finding. Judge Smith states that according to certain NFL players, using wet ones is not feminine. Judge Smith misses the point. The point is not what is "truly" masculine, but what Chuck Wolfe believed was masculine. His information is not pertinent. This information was not part of the trial. Judge Smith’s dissent strikes me as more political than legal. The judge concludes that the "hypersensitivity" exhibited by the trial verdict will hasten "cultural decay" and undermines at-will employment. Again, I do not understand how we get to "cultural decay" in a Title VII lawsuit. This sounds more like a political argument than a legal one. See opinion here.
But, in the end, neither Judge Jones or Judge Smith can explain how a jury, with no apparent stake in the outcome of the trial, arrived at a completely different conclusions about all-male workplaces and blue collar manners.