Transportation Law Update: Appellate Court Interprets Summary Judgment Ruling Concerning Sexual Harassment Allegations by Female Drivers

01.31.2022

CASE SUMMARY:

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the summary judgment ruling of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. Sellars v. CRST Expedited, Inc., 13 F.4th 681 (8th Cir. 2021). The litigation stemmed from several allegations of sexual harassment by female employee drivers at the hands of male coworkers during paired transports. Both individual and class Title VII retaliation claims were asserted. Furthermore, the individually named claimants alleged hostile work environment and constructive discharge theories. Following the district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of CRST Expedited, Inc. (CRST), the Eighth Circuit affirmed all but one ruling. The appellate court remanded for further proceedings regarding retaliation claims asserted by class members who were employed by CRST after a change in CRST’s compensation structure. The appellate court held that this class was subjected to adverse employment action suffered by employees prior to the change in compensation as CRST failed to notify its employees of the policy change. Thus, a factual question remained as to whether CRST’s lack of transparency is either direct or circumstantial evidence of retaliation.

BACKGROUND:

Between approximately 2013 and 2015, three women were employed as truck drivers for CRST. During that time, each woman complained of numerous instances of sexual harassment by male coworkers during paired long-haul transports. Following their complaints to CRST, the women were removed from the complained-of-situation and an investigation by CRST followed.

Pertinent to this discussion is CRST’s driver compensation structure. Specifically, prior to July 2015, two types of driver pay existed, including (i) an individualized split-mileage rate while operating a truck; and (ii) set rates for particular situations, such as layovers longer than 48 hours. Thus, after notifying CRST of harassment and removal from the truck, complainants no longer earned their split-mileage rate but remained eligible for set rate pay. Following July 1, 2015, CRST amended its policy to compensate drivers removed from trucks following a complaint of sexual harassment by providing layover pay regardless of how long the layover lasted. However, this policy change was never communicated by CRST to its employee drivers. Each of the individually named Plaintiffs terminated their employment with CRST prior to the July 2015 policy change.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND COURT RULINGS:

Individual and class Title VII retaliation claims were asserted before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. Claimants alleged that CRST maintained a pattern of discrimination against women who complain of sexual harassment, and classes were broken into pre-2015 and post-2015 groups to account for CRST’s policy change in compensation. Individually named Plaintiffs also brought hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims.

The district court granted CRST’s motion for summary judgment as to the class and individual retaliation claims, as well as to the individual claimants’ hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims. Regarding claims of retaliation, the district court found that no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether an alleged adverse employment action was in retaliation for claimants’ Title VII protected activity. As to the remaining claims, the district court found that no factual dispute existed regarding whether CRST deliberately created intolerable working conditions with the intent that Plaintiffs would resign. The present appeal followed.

ANALYSIS:

Individual and Class Retaliation Claims

The appellate court found no merit in Plaintiffs’ contention that CRST’s behavior was retaliatory per se. First, the removal policy applies the same to sexual harassment claims as it does to other claims, such as safety complaints. Second, the removal policy applies regardless of the complainant’s gender. Discussion was, instead, focused on whether CRST’s adverse employment action (i.e., removal) was motivated by retaliatory intent.

As to the pre-2015 class members, it was determined that the record was void of direct evidence of CRST’s alleged retaliation, as well as an inference of same. However, a different result was reached when considering post-2015 class members. The appellate court concluded that the post-2015 class members were subjected to the same adverse employment action as the pre-2015 class members when CRST concealed its policy change in compensation after it was implemented. Therefore, a reasonable employee, after July 2015, would still expect to be paid less following a complaint of sexual harassment. The appellate court remanded the issue for the district court to determine whether direct or circumstantial evidence establishes that CRST took this adverse employment action in retaliation for the post-2015 class members’ Title VII-protected activity.

Individual Hostile Work Environment Claims

The sole issue before the appellate court as to Plaintiffs’ individual hostile work environment claims was whether CRST was negligent, such that their negligence caused the alleged harassment. In this regard, Plaintiffs’ contention was that CRST knew or should have known that Plaintiffs would be harassed. The appellate court was not persuaded, holding that such a standard would require CRST to assume that every CRST male driver would sexually harass female coworkers. Furthermore, the alleged harassment took place away from management’s oversight and concerned employees with no known history of harassment. Regardless, prompt remedial was taken by CRST in response to each of Plaintiffs’ sexual harassment allegations, thereby precluding liability.

Individual Constructive Discharge Claims

Lastly, Plaintiffs argued that their constructive discharge claims should have survived summary judgment due to evidence that conditions at CRST were so intolerable that a reasonable employee would have felt compelled to quit. However, the appellate court did not agree as intolerable conditions, alone, are insufficient to prove constructive discharge. Rather, intolerable conditions must be attributable to the employer, themselves. The appellate court held that the record was void of such evidence.

Consequently, the appellate court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ individual claims for retaliation, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. The appellate court, likewise, affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the pre-2015 class member retaliation claims but reversed the grant of summary judgment on the post-215 retaliation claims. The case was remanded to the district court to proceed in accordance with the appellate court’s opinion.

Trucking and Transportation Law Information

Contact John F. Fatino for more information about trucking and transportation matters 515-288-6041 or fatino@whitfieldlaw.com. Colleague and fellow Whitfield & Eddy Law transportation law litigator, Associate Attorney Nick J. Gral, assisted in the preparation of these materials.

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