EDITH H. JONES, Circuit Judge:
Constance Chaix Indest sued Freeman Decorating, Inc. and its Vice President of Sales and Administration Larry Arnaudet alleging that she had been sexually harassed in violation of Title VII. The district court granted Arnaudet's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim against him under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Later, the district court granted Freeman's motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Indest appeals both of these decisions.
As to Arnaudet, the law affords Indest no Title VII claim against a company employee. The more challenging question is whether Freeman is entitled to judgment as a matter of law following this year's Supreme Court decisions concerning employer liability for sexual harassment by a supervisor. See Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998); Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998). We hold that, because Freeman promptly and effectively responded to Indest's equally prompt complaint, vicarious liability is inappropriate. The judgment is affirmed.
Freeman, a subsidiary of The Freeman Companies ("TFC"), provides services to convention sponsors and exhibitors. Arnaudet is a Freeman vice-president responsible for the company's overall sales strategy and related policies, procedures, and systems. Additionally, he serves as the account executive for several major annual trade shows and is in charge of all Freeman employees who work at the trade shows. Appellant Indest was employed by Freeman as an exhibitor services representative at one of its branch offices in New Orleans. As of the time this appeal was argued, Indest continued to work for Freeman.
Indest worked at a convention lasting from September 8 through 14, 1993, where Arnaudet was the Freeman executive in charge. Four times, Arnaudet made crude sexual comments and sexual gestures to Indest while she was alone and in the presence of her immediate supervisor, Angie Richard, and her director, Dawn DiMaggio.
On September 13, Indest reported all of the incidents to Dawn DiMaggio, as well as to the branch office manager, Steve Hagstette. Hagstette informed Dan Camp, TFC's human resources director in its Dallas corporate office. Indest was urged to contact Camp, and she spoke with him by telephone on September 20. Pursuant to Freeman's sexual harassment policy, Camp investigated the complaint, interviewing witnesses to the incidents, Indest's supervisors, and Arnaudet. Camp advised TFC's president and chairman, Don Freeman, of the complaints of Indest and of another incident that had occurred approximately six months earlier involving Arnaudet and another female employee (identified as "Jane Doe").
Freeman issued a verbal and written reprimand to Arnaudet, and Camp informed Indest of this reprimand in a conversation that took place on or about October 11. In that conversation, Camp also informed Indest that Arnaudet would apologize to her (an
On October 14, Camp received a letter from Indest, revealing her intention to file an EEOC charge because she feared retaliation. Indest also expressed concern for retaliation when Camp called her to ask about the letter. On November 2, TFC sent Suzanne Bragg, a human resources employee, to reassure Indest that there would be no retaliation. Camp flew to New Orleans to visit Indest a week later. He informed her that Arnaudet would be suspended without pay for seven days and would be prohibited from attending the annual management and sales meeting that he had historically organized and conducted. Camp promised that Indest would never again have to work at any trade shows where Arnaudet was present; he expressly guaranteed that her complaint would neither jeopardize her job nor inhibit her ability to advance within the company; and he told her the company would pay for any counseling she might need.
To demonstrate the company's concern about the incident at the highest level, Freeman personally confirmed Arnaudet's disciplinary action in writing on November 15, in a letter that stated in part: "[The company is] particularly concerned that there never be any discriminatory action taken against Connie Indest in retaliation [for] her complaint. It is vitally important that there be no future instances of sexual harassment of our employees by you." Freeman also advised an executive committee, composed of Arnaudet's contemporaries and superiors, of Arnaudet's conduct and resulting punishment.
Indest has received periodic pay raises since the incident, and she concedes that Arnaudet has not further harassed her. She does not allege that Arnaudet has subsequently harassed any other employee.
As a result of the episode, Indest states she has suffered the recurrence of an obsessive-compulsive disorder called trichotillomania (hair-pulling), anxiety, and sleeplessness, and has sought and received counseling. Indest filed an EEOC charge of sex discrimination and harassment. After receiving a right-to-sue letter, she sued Freeman and Arnaudet. The district court dismissed her claims against Arnaudet because he cannot be sued individually or in his official capacity under Title VII. The court granted judgment as a matter of law to Freeman, holding that whether or not Arnaudet was a supervisor and regardless whether his actions could be termed quid pro quo
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A district court's ruling on a Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss is reviewed de novo. Barrientos v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 911 F.2d 1115, 1116 (5th Cir.1990). Additionally, "[w]e must accept all well-pleaded facts as true, and we view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. We may not look beyond the pleadings. A dismissal will not be affirmed if the allegations support relief on any possible theory." Cinel v. Connick, 15 F.3d 1338, 1341 (5th Cir. 1994).
The grant of summary judgment is reviewed de novo, applying the same standards as the district court. Duffy v. Leading Edge Prods., Inc., 44 F.3d 308, 312 (5th Cir.1995). Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The movant must "demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If the movant does so, "the nonmovant must go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir.1994). Evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Duffy, 44 F.3d at 312.
A. Individual Liability Under Title VII.
Arnaudet sought dismissal for failure to state a claim against him pursuant to Fed. R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The district court applied settled Fifth Circuit law in holding that employees may not be sued for damages in their individual capacities. The court also reasoned that it would be redundant for Indest to sue both Arnaudet in his official capacity and Freeman, because Freeman would bear responsibility for the liability of either party through Title VII's incorporation of the principle of vicarious liability.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it "an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . sex." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). While Title VII defines the term employer to include "any agent" of an employer, id. § 2000e(b), this circuit does not interpret the statute as imposing individual liability for such a claim. See Pfau v. Reed, 125 F.3d 927, 935-36 (5th Cir.1997).
This court has also concluded that "outside of an action against an officer personally, a plaintiff does not have an action against both the corporation and its officer in an official capacity." Sims v. Jefferson Downs Racing Assoc., Inc., 778 F.2d 1068, 1081 (5th Cir.1985) (suit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983). Here, the district court dismissed Arnaudet as a defendant based on the logic of Sims and an Eastern District of Louisiana case, Allen v. Tulane Univ., No. CIV.A.92-4070, 1993 WL 459949 (E.D.La. Nov.2, 1993), which specifically found that the "Plaintiff is not entitled to maintain an action against both a corporation and its agent in an official capacity [in a Title VII action] because effectively the corporation could be held liable twice for the same act." Allen, 1993 WL 459949, at *4.
B. Employer Liability for the Acts of Employees Under Title VII.
The district court held that Indest had the burden of proving that Freeman knew or should have known of the alleged harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action.
Before this year's trilogy of Supreme Court Title VII cases appeared, Indest and the EEOC advocated imposing strict liability on Freeman by arguing that the "defense" of prompt remedial action does not apply in two situations: 1) when a plaintiff alleges a quid pro quo claim arising from the actions of a supervisor or other manager who relies on delegated authority, and 2) when the alleged harasser in a hostile work environment case is a supervisor or manager who used actual or apparent authority, or was merely aided by the existence of an agency relationship, in committing the harassment.
The recent Supreme Court decisions guide our analysis. They shed light on what constitutes an actionable claim for a sexually hostile working environment. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 118 S.Ct. 998, 140 L.Ed.2d 201 (1998). They resolve the circuit split over the standard of employer liability for sexual harassment perpetrated by a supervisor. See Faragher, ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662; Ellerth, ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633. And they reaffirm that Meritor's rejection of automatic liability for employers, although modified, remains a fundamental limit on Title VII liability. Faragher, ___ U.S. at ___-___, 118 S.Ct. at 2285-86; Ellerth, ___ U.S. at ___-___, 118 S.Ct. at 2268-70.
In Oncale, the Court principally decided that Title VII applies to claims of same-sex harassment. But the Court also emphasized that Title VII is not a general civility code for the American workplace:
Oncale, 118 S.Ct. at 1003. In Faragher, the Court concluded a discussion of the demanding standards for a sexual hostile environment claim by stating:
___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2284. Faragher cited approvingly a Fifth Circuit case in which the utterance of an offensive ethnic or racial slur did not sufficiently alter the terms and conditions of employment to violate Title VII. Id. at 2283 (citing Rogers v. EEOC, 454 F.2d 234, 238 (5th Cir.1971)). Faragher repeated the holding in Harris
Faragher, ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2283 (citations omitted). Finally, Ellerth underscored that:
Ellerth, 118 S.Ct. at 2265.
Taken together, these cases hold that sexual harassment which does not culminate in an adverse employment decision must, to create a hostile work environment, be severe or pervasive. Incidental, occasional or merely playful sexual utterances will rarely poison the employee's working conditions to the extent demanded for liability. Discourtesy or rudeness, "offhand comments and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in `terms and conditions of employment.'" Faragher, ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2283. All of the sexual hostile environment cases decided by the Supreme Court have involved patterns or allegations of extensive, longlasting, unredressed, and uninhibited sexual threats or conduct that permeated the plaintiffs' work environment. See, e.g., Faragher, ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662; Ellerth, ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633; Oncale, 523 U.S. 75, 118 S.Ct. 998, 140 L.Ed.2d 201; Harris, 510 U.S. 17, 114 S.Ct. 367, 126 L.Ed.2d 295 (1993); Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson 477 U.S. 57, 106 S.Ct. 2399, 91 L.Ed.2d 49 (1986). The extreme facts recited in those cases highlight the intensity of the objectionable conduct that must be present in order to constitute an actionable hostile environment claim.
In light of this demanding standard, it is difficult to conclude that the conduct to which Indest was briefly subjected created a sexually abusive overall working environment. This is not to say that Arnaudet behaved like a gentleman or a responsible company officer. On the contrary, his crude remarks and implied threat deserved censure. As far as the entire context of Indest's employment with Freeman is concerned, however, Arnaudet's misbehavior was neither severe nor pervasive. She only complained about working with him on one occasion. His vulgar remarks and innuendos (about his own anatomy) were no more offensive than sexual jokes regularly told on major network television programs. Significantly, Arnaudet never touched Indest. His "threat" to Indest to "prove herself to him" was far more ambiguous than those uttered in Ellerth.
Whether Indest was subjected to a sexually hostile working environment might be a close question on this summary judgment record, but it is a question that we do not need to address, because there is another basis on which Indest's claim falls short. Indest cannot establish a basis for Freeman's liability as her employer. The Supreme Court's decisions in Ellerth and Faragher articulate and recapitulate some, but not all, standards for employer liability. First, the cases distinguish between supervisory conduct that "culminates in a tangible employment action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment," and hostile environment conduct which does not have this effect. Ellerth, ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2270. When the harassment resulted
Second, the Court articulated a test of liability:
Id. (citation omitted).
Further, in Faragher, the Court approved the "myriad cases" in which lower courts have held employers liable where the employer, or its high-level officials, had actual knowledge of harassing action by subordinates or co-workers and did nothing to stop it. ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2284. The Court also reaffirmed the cases that impose liability on the employer for negligence, where it knew of should have known of sexual harassment by an employee's co-workers and failed to stop it. See id. at 2285. The Court explained that liability may be fastened on an employer for the acts of its official who is "indisputably within that class . . . who may be treated as the organization's proxy," like the corporate president in Harris. Faragher, ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2284. While Ellerth and Faragher do not delineate the difference between a supervisor and co-worker of the plaintiff employee, they state that vicarious liability will result from the conduct of "a supervisor with immediate (or successively higher) authority over the employee." Faragher, ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2293; Ellerth, ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2270.
Ellerth and Faragher do not, however, directly speak to the circumstances before us, a case in which the plaintiff quickly resorted to Freeman's policy and grievance procedure against sexual harassment, and the employer took prompt remedial action. The Supreme Court cases both involve complaints of longstanding supervisor misbehavior, and the plaintiffs either never utilized or claimed not to be aware of the company policies. But for purposes of imposing vicarious liability, a case presenting only an incipient hostile environment corrected by prompt remedial action should be distinct from a case in which a company was never called upon to react to a supervisor's protracted or extremely severe acts that created a hostile environment. Although the Ellerth/Faragher standard, which imposes vicarious liability subject to an employer's two-prong affirmative defense, does not control, it informs the principles determinative of this case.
First, when a plaintiff promptly complains about a supervisor's inappropriate sexual actions, she can thwart the creation of a hostile work environment. To the extent redress is sought, is justified, and is adequately provided by the company, the complained-of incidents will not likely have become severe or pervasive enough to create an actionable Title VII claim. This result effectuates the purpose of Title VII, which cannot guarantee civility in the American workplace but, at its best, inspires prophylactic measures to deter unwanted sexual harassment. By promptly invoking a company's grievance procedure, a plaintiff has received the benefit Title VII was meant to confer. In such cases, an actionable hostile environment claim will rarely if ever have matured.
A third, more fundamental reason also justifies distinguishing the Ellerth/Faragher test from the case before us. The Supreme Court felt obliged to square its new limited vicarious liability standard "with Meritor's holding that an employer is not `automatically' liable for harassment by a supervisor who creates" a sexually hostile working environment. Faragher, ___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2278. Meritor rejected imposing strict Title VII liability on employers for such claims. 477 U.S. at 72, 106 S.Ct. at 2408. Meritor was left in place in the Court's recent cases because of stare decisis and because, as the Court noted, Congress conspicuously left Meritor intact even as it modified other aspects of Title VII law in 1991. Most important, the Court acknowledged that Meritor furthers the twin deterrent and compensatory aims of Title VII. As Faragher put it:
___ U.S. at ___, 118 S.Ct. at 2292.
Imposing vicarious liability on an employer for a supervisor's "hostile environment" actions despite its swift and appropriate remedial response to the victim's complaint would thus undermine not only Meritor but Title VII's deterrent policy. Vicarious liability would amount to strict liability even though the plaintiff had suffered neither a severe and pervasive change in her working conditions nor any adverse employment action. A holding of vicarious liability would conflict with cases, specifically approved by the Court, in which an employer's liability for co-worker sexual harassment is governed by a negligence standard, and the employer is liable only if it knew or should have known and failed to take proper remedial steps. See Faragher, ___ U.S. at ___-___, 118 S.Ct. at 2285-86. A standard imposing vicarious liability notwithstanding the employer's having nipped a hostile environment in the bud would also conflict with the premise of Ellerth/Faragher, founded in agency law, that a supervisor who creates a hostile environment is aided by his agency status with the employer in doing so. See Faragher, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 118 S.Ct. 2285, 2290. Where the company, on hearing a plaintiff's complaint about inappropriate sexual behavior, moves promptly to investigate and stop the harassment, it eradicates any semblance of authority the harasser might otherwise have possessed.
Finally, Faragher's discussion of the avoidable consequences doctrine and an employee's duty to mitigate damages supports relieving the employer from liability in circumstances like those before us. Faragher explains the relevance of these concepts while discussing the prong of the affirmative defense that requires an employer to prove the employee's "unreasonable" failure to take advantage of company policies to avoid sexual harassment:
Id. at 2292. Faragher implies that a plaintiff should not wait as long as it usually takes for a sexually hostile working environment to develop when the company has an effective grievance mechanism. If the plaintiff complains promptly, the then-incidental misbehavior can be stymied before it erupts into a hostile environment, and no actionable Title VII violation will have occurred.
Applying the foregoing analysis to Indest's case, we hold that because she promptly complained of Arnaudet's harassing conduct, and because the company promptly responded, disciplined Arnaudet appropriately and stopped the harassment, the district court properly granted judgment as a matter of law to Freeman. Even if a hostile work environment claim had been stated, which is dubious, Freeman's prompt remedial response relieves it of Title VII vicarious liability.
C. Employer Liability for Failing to Prevent Sexual Harassment
In a final effort to find a genuine issue of material fact, Indest and EEOC assert that Title VII liability may be imposed on Freeman because of its inadequate discipline of Arnaudet after a previous complaint involving another Freeman employee, "Jane Doe." There is insufficient evidence in the record, however, from which the details of the Jane Doe incident can be ascertained or compared with this case. We find no merit in these contentions.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.