Hostile work environments require both prompt and effective responses from employers.

Issue By: James F. Regan

Efrain Reynaga v. Roseburg Forest Products

Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (January 26, 2017)

Courts have long recognized that a workplace in which racial hostility is pervasive constitutes a form of discrimination. When the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment, Title VII is violated. Woods v. Graphic Comm’ns, 925 F.2d 1195, 1200 (9th Cir. 1991). The Reynaga v. Roseburg Forest Products case provided a good analysis of what a plaintiff claiming racial discrimination needs to demonstrate to defeat a motion for summary judgment.

Efrain Reynaga (“Efrain”) and his son Richard Reynaga worked as millwrights for Roseburg Forest Products (“Roseburg”). According to Efrain, he and his son were the only millwrights of Mexican descent at Roseburg. Efrain alleges that during the course of his employment, he was subjected to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment because of his race or national origin. When Efrain complained, Roseburg first investigated and then hired an outside company to investigate the claims. Efrain cited multiple specific instances of a lead millwright, Timothy Branaugh (“Branaugh”) engaging in harassing conduct and making racially derogatory comments, along with disparate treatment and retaliation at Roseburg. The Company agreed to rearrange their work schedules, but on multiple occasions thereafter they were still scheduled to work together. Efrain left the premises and refused to work with Branaugh – and was fired a few days later.

Efrain filed a Complaint that alleged three causes of action for discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (“Title VII”): (1) hostile work environment; (2) disparate treatment; and (3) retaliation. Efrain also alleged a fourth cause of action for relief under Oregon state law for disparate treatment and hostile work environment. Roseburg moved for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Roseburg on all claims. Efrain timely appealed.

The Appellate Court reversed and remanded for a trial on Efrain’s claims of hostile work environment, disparate treatment, and retaliation. It held that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that (1) Branaugh’s conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment; and (2) Roseburg knew about Branaugh’s misconduct and failed to take effective remedial action. As to Efrain’s disparate treatment claim, it held that Efrain had demonstrated the necessary prima facie case to survive summary judgment based on (1) Roseburg terminating Efrain’s employment and (2) breaking into Efrain’s locker. It further held that there was a genuine dispute of fact as to Roseburg’s discriminatory intent regarding those challenged actions. Finally, as to Efrain’s retaliatory termination claim, it held that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that Roseburg’s proffered reason for terminating Efrain was pretextual.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the individual’s race. 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1). This includes a prohibition against the creation of a hostile work environment. See Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). To succeed on a hostile work environment claim based on
race, the plaintiff must demonstrate: “(1) that he was subjected to verbal or physical conduct of a racial . . . nature; (2) that the conduct was unwelcome; and (3) that the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment and create an abusive work environment.” Vasquez v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 349 F.3d 634, 642 (9th Cir. 2003). In assessing whether a work environment is sufficiently hostile, the court examines the “frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.” Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 787–88 (1998). Here, the Court found evidence of repeated explicit racial and national origin comments in the workplace and that demeaning comments that directly reference race or national origin were not “offhand comments” or “mere offensive utterance[s].” Faragher, at 788.

An employer can be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. The record indicates that Roseburg may have acted promptly in investigating Efrain’s complaints, but prompt action is not enough. The remedial measures must also be effective. When the employer undertakes no remedy, or where the remedy does not end the current harassment and deter future harassment, liability attaches for both the past harassment and any future harassment.” Nichols v. Azteca Rest. Enters., Inc., 256 F.3d 864, 875 (2001).

The Court found that there was disparate treatment since two non-hispanic employees were treated better than Efrain. Branaugh was hardly reprimanded despite repeated complaints. Efrain’s locker lock was cut during a drug investigation, while others were not. Also, Efrain was terminated. A plaintiff can satisfy the prima facie elements from McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973): (1) the plaintiff belongs to a protected class; (2) he was performing according to his employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated employees were treated more favorably, or other circumstances surrounding the adverse employment action give rise to an inference of discrimination. In the alternative, a plaintiff may simply produce direct or circumstantial evidence demonstrating that a discriminatory reason “more likely than not motivated” the employer. Metoyer v. Chassman, 504 F.3d 919, 931 (2007).

The Court found the timing of his termination and the evidence that he was treated less favorably than other employees outside of the protected class were sufficient to establish a genuine dispute of fact as to whether Roseburg’s proffered reason for terminating Efrain’s employment was pretextual.

COMMENT

This decision offers a general overview of the law supporting § 1981,Title VII and claims involving hostile work environments, disparate treatment and retaliation. However, while the Court indicated that employers must respond to complaints promptly, it noted that the measures it takes must be effective. Here, it wasn’t enough that the Company investigated the claim on its own and hired an outside company to assist – the Court found that the response was ineffective.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Reynaga v. Roseburg

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