Last week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of Hales v. Casey's Marketing.
Lauren Hales was an eighteen year old employee working the graveyard shift at Casey's General Store. At 1:45 AM, a customer came in and starting making sexually suggestive comments towards her. In an attempt to avoid the man, Hales stepped outside to take a cigarette break. The man followed her, blocked the entrance to the store, and continued making sexual remarks.
Hales, who had previously been sexual assaulted, told the guy to "back off". The customer replied "what are you going to do about it?", at which point Hales extended her cigarette to ward him off. Instead, the customer stepped towards Hales, burning his arm on her cigarette in the process.
The next day, the customer complained to a Casey's manager that Hales had burned his arm. The next time Hales reported to work, a manager asked her if "anything out of the ordinary" happened on her previous shift. She forthrightly reported the cigarette incident, but said she had done it in self-defense.
Hales was then terminated.
She sued, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation -- and the Eighth Circuit just rejected both of those claims. The harassment claim failed because the customer's conduct wasn't "severe or pervasive" enough to constitute sexual harassment as a matter of law (the Eighth Circuit apparently hasn't decided whether a company can be held liable for harassment done by a customer, but it assumed for sake of argument that it could). The retaliation claim was rejected because it was filed too late, but apparently the district court had also indicated it should fail because Hales was not engaged in protected activity under Title VII.
Here's the thing: I'm not sure this decision is wrong as a matter of (current) law. The "severe and pervasive" threshold necessary to make out a harassment claim is extremely (I'd say ludicrously) high, and I know of no case law which addresses self-defense steps as a form of "opposing" harassment in the workplace.*
But even if the case "rightfully" lost, all that demonstrates is that antidiscrimination law -- even when "correctly" applied -- isn't sufficient to protect vulnerable workers (even from discrimination).
In fact, the structure of antidiscrimination law in many ways encourages employers like Casey's to act in precisely this fashion -- terminating employees who are the victims of sexual harassment (whether by customers or coworkers) as a "preemptive strike" before they're able to put together a legally cognizable claim of discrimination. Even if one doesn't think that antidiscrimination law should expand to create liability for a single case of customer harassment, there's surely something perverse about it allowing (or even encouraging!) a young woman to be fired because she refused to tolerate a customer harassing her.
When I read this case, it reminded me of one of the very first employment discrimination cases I read which got me hot under the collar -- Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp. In that case, Jordan -- in accordance with company policy -- reported a coworker who, while watching news coverage that two Black criminals had been arrested, exclaimed "[t]hey should put those two black monkeys in a cage with a bunch of black apes and let the apes fuck them." His supervisor took decisive action ... against Jordan: changing his work hours to less desirable times, making derogatory comments towards Jordan, and then -- within a month of the initial complaint -- firing Jordan. Jordan sued, claiming his termination was retaliation for filing his complaint.
Title VII only protects against retaliation if you're opposing an act covered under Title VII. In Jordan, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the single racist remark Jordan reported could not alone have sufficed to create legally actionable harassment (again, not being "severe or pervasive" enough to qualify), which means he was not "opposing" covered conduct, which means that his company was not retaliating against him as a matter of law (even though, again, company policy required that Jordan file his complaint).
Jordan argued that his complaint should have been protected because it covered action that, if left unabated, would have eventually ripened into unlawful harassment. The court refused to make the extension, and the result is an obvious Catch-22: Jordan has to report conduct that is not "yet" harassment in order to obey company policy (and preserve a potential future harassment claim), but he can be retaliated against for filing the reports.
But there's a deeper problem in the incentive structure this rule creates: As soon as an employer begins to observe incipient harassing conduct that has not (yet) risen to be legally actionable, it probably should terminate the victim before a sufficient record of wrongful conduct accumulates.** If the employee is reporting the bad conduct, then so much the worse for them -- they're showing themselves to be the sorts who stand up for themselves and so may be more likely to file a discrimination complaint.
Consider how this dynamic might have played out in Hales' case. Suppose the manager knew that one instance of customer harassment of this sort against Hales would likely not be enough to create any legal liability for Casey's. But if it happened again to Hales, or multiple times, then Casey's may well be on the hook. What are the options? Well, one is to take concrete steps to protect Hales from this predatory customer (e.g., banning him from the store) and harassment more generally. But that's difficult, and maybe expensive, and it alienates a customer! So option two is just to fire Hales. If you fire her now, the legal case is nipped in the bud. Problem solved.
And make no mistake: this set of perverse incentives will fall heaviest on the most vulnerable employees. It is entirely predictable that the employees most likely to be subjected to repeat instances of sexually aggressive, harassing conduct are young, those working overnight shifts, racial minorities, gender-nonconforming, and the like (Hales met at least the first two of these). Hence, it is these employees who are most likely to be -- and be perceived as -- potential "repeat victims". And that means they are the most likely to encounter "preemptive strike" discrimination -- a form of employment discrimination that does not just avoid legal accountability, but in many ways is the product of the (exceptions to) antidiscrimination law itself.
So the obvious reform is to make clear that Title VII retaliation protections extend to cases of opposition to sexual or racial misconduct even where the practices would not themselves (yet) rise to being independently legally actionable.
But it's also the more straightforward case that what Hales really needed here was a union. It is very difficult to craft legal rules which do not create some sets of bad incentives or which a clever employer cannot game to their advantage. Given who writes laws (political elites) and who interprets them (legal elites), these unanticipated consequences are unlikely to be randomly distributed -- they will track the usual lines of social power and advantage.
Hence, what Hales really needs is someone whose job it is to be in her corner, a body which can protect her from such arbitrary employer action in the particular case even when the general law couldn't shield her. In other words, she needs a union.
* Retaliation jurisprudence generally envisions "opposition" to mean something like reporting the conduct to company officials or public authority officials. Nonetheless, I'd be inclined to say that physically resisting harassment in the workplace should qualify as "opposing" that conduct. But there remains the separate problem illuminated by the Jordan case: where the conduct "opposed" does not alone suffice to create a "severe and pervasive" hostile work environment (as it almost never will in the first instance), then no action by the employee -- whether it's filing a report or physical resisting her harasser -- would be covered under anti-retaliation protections.
** A similar dynamic sometimes emerges in the labor law context, where employees are protected insofar as they engage in "concerted action". On face, this gives employers who see the potential for emergent concerted labor action an incentive to fire the source employee before any organization can begin. But unlike in the discrimination-retaliation context, both courts and the NLRB have concluded that such "preemptive strikes" also violate labor law, even where they come before any conduct that itself would qualify as "concerted action" and even where they successfully preclude any such action from later manifesting.