In an important legal ruling, a federal district court has reversed itself in a prominent case and now says usual kinds of sexual harassment cannot be challenged in class action lawsuits brought against an employer on behalf of a group of employees in most cases that involve individual circumstances.
The impact could be wide-ranging and extend far beyond the jurisdiction of the Iowa U.S. District Court, says attorney Gregory V. Mersol of the law firm Baker & Hostetler “The bottom line: Hostile environment sexual harassment claims may be poor candidates for class action treatment due to the need to evaluate the conduct itself, the complaining party’s reaction to it, and the employer’s response under the circumstances it knew or should have known about.”
A group of female professional drivers had brought suit against nationwide trucking company CRST Expedited Inc., alleging that its policies and practices in handling sexual harassment complaints were discriminatory. In addition to ultimately decertifying the class action, the court also rendered summary judgment on behalf of the company, dismissing the complaint on its merits and held that the women who brought the suit had failed to prove a retaliatory motive behind any of the company’s pay or other policies.
The case sprung from CRST’s practice of using two-driver teams in its long-distance trucking operations to make sure it met federal Hours-of-Service regulations applying to interstate truck drivers. The two would switch off driving duties when each one’s hours ran out.
The women truck drivers who brought suit contended there existed a hostile environment of sexual harassment both in training, where a trainer would ride with a trainee, and in regular service when a woman and a man were riding together.
Under CRST’s sexual harassment policy, when a problem arose it was generally required that the complaining female driver had to leave the truck and travel home separately at the company’s expense. The women who brought suit took issue with the company policy, including how harassment allegations were resolved, how frequently their complaints resulted in discipline against the harasser, and how the separation of the female complainant and the other driver who was the alleged harasser was handled.
The women bringing suit cited no fewer than 135 complaints brought by CRST’s women drivers claiming sexually harassing conduct had occurred. The company introduced evidence that it employs far more women than its competitors in the trucking industry. It also maintains a tab on its website promoting the experience of its women drivers, including testimonials from women employees and others.
The court’s decision decertifying the class action relied largely on settled legal principles which hold that plaintiffs need to prove a pattern and practice of sexual harassment, the harassment was objectively offensive and it was subjectively offensive to the victim, and the employer was or should have been aware of it and failed to take appropriate remedial action.
The court found that the female plaintiffs never explained how they would prove sexual harassment on a class basis. The incidents they cited occurred between employees far beyond the view of any supervisor, and an incident on one ride could not be imputed to a different trip with different individuals miles away. The court declared, “This is where the class structure falls apart, as there is no common evidence regarding the alleged harassment female drivers experienced.”
Similarly, although a claim of hostile environment required establishing a pattern of pervasive sexual conduct, many of the women alleged only individual incidents—and the court said none of those were likely to trigger liability for the employer. In addition, the women could not explain how they would prove the subjective element that depended on individual perceptions on a classwide basis.
The court also explained that, unlike in a race discrimination case focusing on an employer’s racial animus underlying employment decisions, which is something that can be proven by common evidence, a pattern or practice sexual harassment suit requires individualized proof because liability focuses “on the gravity of the conduct to which the claimant was exposed.”
As a result, the court also found that the question of the appropriateness of the employer’s response could not be made on a classwide basis. It held that CRST’s formal policies and practices were lawful, and the company’s response to each of the complaints would have to be evaluated on their own merits.