7th Circuit Affirms $4.2 Million Verdict For Pipefitter Against Chrysler In Hostile Work Environment Claim.

On August 23, 2012, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld a jury verdict in excess of $4.2 million for a pipefitter who sued his employer, Chrysler Group, LLC, in federal court in Chicago for allowing a hostile work environment to persist against him at its Belvedere, Illinois Assembly plant for several years.  The jury’s award included an award of $3.5 million in punitive damages, which was affirmed on appeal.  A copy of the court’s decision can be read here.  Otto May, Jr. v. Chrysler Group, LLC (7th Cir. 2012).  The plaintiff, Otto May, Jr. was subjected to racist, xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic graffiti, including death threats, over the course of several years at the plant.

To prevail on his hostile work environment claim, the plaintiff May had to prove that (1) he was subject to unwelcome harassment based upon his religion race, religion, or national origin, (2) that it was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile or abusive work environment, and (3) that there was a basis for employer liability.  In this trial, the only issue was employer liability. 

On that issue, plaintiff had to prove that Chrysler did “not promptly and adequately respond to employer harassment.”  The Seventh Circuit held that this meant that Chrysler needed to “respond in a manner reasonably likely to end the harassment.”  This, of course, depends on the facts and circumstances of every case which are viewed in light of the gravity of the harassment alleged.  A reasonable response to mere “taunting” or “insults” may be unreasonable to deal with “death threats” or “physical violence.”  Moreover, the court emphasized that whether the employer is successful or not in stopping the harassment does not determine whether the employer should be liable. 

Here, the court held that the jury was presented with ample evidence to conclude that Chrysler did not “promptly and adequately” respond to the harassment.  The court stated that one need only look at what Chrysler did (or did not do) during the entire first year that plaintiff was subjected to written threats and harassment, such as (and we apologize, as did the court, for the explicit nature of the comments):  graffiti near his work station stating “Cuban fag jew,”  “kill Jew,” “no one can help you [fu*!@#] Cuban jew we will get you Death to the Jews Cuban fag Die.”  During the first year of threats like this, Chrysler held only one meeting, interviewed plaintiff Otto May, and hired a handwriting expert.  The court held that the jury could properly conclude that Chrysler had not done enough to promptly and adequately respond to the harassment.  The court’s opinion (see above) addresses the later efforts made by Chrysler to address the harassment, which the court and jury ultimately viewed as insufficient.

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