May v. Chrysler Group LLC, 2012 WL 3608588 (7th Cir. 2012)

Facts: Over fifty times between 2002 and 2005, Otto May Jr., plaintiff, an employee at a Chrysler Assembly plant in Illinois, was the target of harassment and death threats.  Beginning in early 2002, his personal vehicle and two loaner cars were vandalized.  Derogatory graffiti was identified on the employee elevator, and he received threatening notes in his toolbox.  May raised his concerns to Chrysler, the local police, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The plant’s human resources department and the head of labor relations held two employee meetings where they addressed Chrysler’s harassment policy.  However, none of the employees were individually interviewed.

May asked McPherson to have surveillance cameras installed and to implement a “swipe-key” door system.  Chrysler declined to adopt these measures.

When additional graffiti was discovered five days after the meeting, May contacted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  The ADL wrote to Chrysler’s corporate headquarters.  A representative from Chrysler’s corporate diversity office, asked May to generate a list of names of employees May thought could be responsible for the harassment.  Chrysler never interviewed anyone one the list.

In 2003, Chrysler implemented a policy for receiving and recording harassment incidents targeting May.  In May 2003, Chrysler hired a handwriting expert to review the harassment notes and graffiti.  The expert concluded the harassment was the work of a single person, possibly May himself.  However, the expert was unable to identify a suspect.

May sued Chrysler, alleging Title VII and 42 § U.S.C. 1981 claims.

Procedural Posture: The judge granted summary judgment for Chrysler on all but the hostile work environment claim.

The jury determined that the harassment was genuine.  They found Chrysler’s efforts to end the harassment were inadequate.  The jury awarded May $709,000 in compensatory damages and $3.5 million in punitive damages.  The judge found the compensatory damages excessive and reduced the award to $300,000.  The judge found insufficient evidence to warrant punitive damages and vacated the punitive award. Both parties appealed.

Issue: Does a “highly charitable assessment of the evidence support the jury’s verdict” or was the jury “irrational to reach its conclusion”?

Holding: The evidence was sufficient to find Chrysler liable for failing to take sufficient measures to end the harassment.  The court reinstated the jury’s full compensatory award and punitive award.

Reasoning: A hostile work environment claim exists when an employee is: 1) “subject to unwelcome harassment based on his race, religion, or national origin”; 2) the harassment was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile or abusive work environment”; and 3) “there is a basis for employer liability.”  An employer can be liable if it does not adequately respond to harassment claims.  An employer is considered to have adequately responded to harassment claims if it undertakes a course of action “reasonably likely to end the harassment.”  The appropriate action is determined based on the particular facts and circumstances of the case.  By June 2002, two minor incidents had occurred. By September, May began receiving death threats.  Two weeks after the death threats began, two employee meetings were held.  More than a half-dozen incidents had occurred by January 2003 when Chrysler’s corporate office obtained a list of suspects from May.  No one on May’s list was interviewed. Seven more incidents occurred before Chrysler hired a handwriting expert.  Consequently, the court reasonably concluded that Chrysler had not done enough to end harassment.

The court reasoned: when an employee has been subject to repeated threats over a period of many months, and the employer has a list of suspected perpetrators, it is reasonable for the jury to think the employer should investigate some of those names.

Notes: If this case were brought only under Title VII, then it may be capped at $300,000, but the case was additionally brought under §1981.

 

Briefed By: Stephen Atwell

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