BOUDIN, Chief Judge.
Plaintiff Bobbi-Lyn Reed sued her former employer MBNA Marketing Systems, Inc. and two parent companies (collectively, "MBNA," a major banking institution), claiming that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor, William Appel. The district court granted MBNA's motion for summary judgment, and Reed now appeals. We set forth the facts in the light most favorable to Reed as the party opposing summary judgment. Motorsport Eng'g, Inc. v. Maserati S.p.A., 316 F.3d 26, 28 (1st Cir.2002).
Reed began working for MBNA in June 1999 at the age of seventeen. She worked as a telemarketer in the MBNA call center in Orono, Maine, under the supervision of Appel, then aged thirty-four. Almost immediately, Appel started misbehaving. Appel told Reed that "if you ever catch me looking at you funny, it's because you remind me of my ex-girlfriend." Appel also frequently dropped green M&M's on Reed's desk claiming that they would "make [her] horny." He also routinely complimented her on her clothes and appearance, comments which take color from his other remarks.
According to Reed, a far more serious incident followed. In August 1999, Reed went to Appel's house to babysit for his two-year-old son. When Appel returned home, he and Reed talked for a short period and then Reed started to leave. As she was leaving, Appel came up behind her, put his arm around her neck and dragged her into the living room where he pressed her to perform oral sex on him. Afterwards, Appel told Reed that she should not tell anyone what had happened or they would both be fired, adding that his family had influence with the head of the company; the details of what Appel said are recounted below.
Reed did not report the incident, and Appel ignored Reed at work for a few days thereafter. Soon, Appel again began making
Reed returned to work at MBNA in May 2000 because she needed to make more money than she was earning at her other job. She was re-assigned to Appel's team. After a few weeks Appel resumed his earlier comments on her appearance and his practice of dropping green M&M's on her desk. In August 2000, Appel called Reed into his office, asked if she would babysit for him again, and told her that she looked like she needed to wrestle. Reed refused and claims that thereafter Appel's attitude became "really mean," yelling at her for coming in late to work or wearing khakis, conduct that he had previously tolerated.
On August 28, 2000, Reed told MBNA officials about Appel's behavior including his assault of the year before and she requested a transfer. Reed says that she decided to come forward because she heard that Appel was asking other young women who worked on his team to babysit for him and she was afraid that they would be sexually assaulted as well. MBNA began an investigation that day leading swiftly to a decision to terminate Appel. Appel resigned before the paperwork for his dismissal could be completed.
Reed continued to work at MBNA. On February 22, 2001, she filed a discrimination charge with the Maine Human Rights Commission, but the Commission declined to pursue the complaint. Reed left MBNA in June 2001, and on December 11, 2001, Reed filed the present suit against MBNA in state court, making claims under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (2000) — the federal employment discrimination statute — and under the Maine Human Rights Act, Me.Rev.Stat. tit. 5, § 4572(1)(A) (2000), which the parties treat as coextensive with Title VII for present purposes. Other claims were made but are not pertinent to this appeal.
After removal of the case to federal court and discovery, the district court granted MBNA's motion for summary judgment. Reed v. MBNA Mktg. Sys., Inc., 231 F.Supp.2d 363, 375-76 (D.Me. 2002). The court held that, although Appel's conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter Reed's terms and conditions of employment, id. at 371-72, MBNA was not vicariously liable for his conduct. The court found that, first, Reed did not suffer "a tangible employment action" — a term of art in the case law — and, second, the company took reasonable care to prevent and correct sexually harassing behavior and Reed unreasonably failed to invoke the company's corrective mechanism. Id. at 372-75. Reed now appeals.
Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise 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). Although Title VII does not in its terms address sexual harassment, the Supreme Court has read the statute to include such conduct as a form of gender discrimination where, inter alia, it is "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment
In two cases decided in 1998 — Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998); Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998) — the Supreme Court itself devised a special framework for imposing vicarious liability on employers in cases involving harassment by supervisors.
Id. at 807-08, 118 S.Ct. 2275; Ellerth, 524 U.S. at 764-65, 118 S.Ct. 2257.
Notice, at the outset, that the affirmative defense does not apply where a "tangible employment action" is taken against the employee — for example, where in the course of the harassment, the supervisor illegitimately fires or demotes the employee. Ellerth offered as instances of such tangible job action the following: "hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment
Reed was not fired or demoted but she seeks to bring herself within this category of tangible employment action by describing her initial departure from the job in fall 1999 as a "constructive discharge." The phrase "constructive discharge" usually describes harassment so severe and oppressive that staying on the job while seeking redress — the rule save in exceptional cases — is "intolerable," Keeler v. Putnam Fiduciary Trust Co., 238 F.3d 5, 9-10 (1st Cir.2001); and the concept has been used for various purposes, such as allowing the employee to claim damages not only for emotional harm due to the harassment but also for lost wages after departure. Melendez-Arroyo v. Cutler-Hammer de P.R. Co., 273 F.3d 30, 36 (1st Cir.2001).
Here, the district court rejected Reed's claim that, by calling the conduct here a constructive discharge, she could avoid MBNA's effort to prove an affirmative defense. Case law in the Third and Eighth Circuits treats constructive discharge as a tangible employment action; cases in the Second and Sixth Circuits lean the other way.
Nothing is gained by arguing in the abstract about whether a constructive discharge is or is not a discharge; for some purposes or rubrics, it might be so treated, e.g., Vega v. Kodak Caribbean, Ltd., 3 F.3d 476, 480 (1st Cir.1993), and for others not. What matters is the Supreme Court's rationale for excluding tangible employment actions from the affirmative defense, namely, that a supervisor who takes official action against an employee should be treated as acting for the employer. Ellerth, 524 U.S. at 761, 118 S.Ct. 2257. There might indeed be cases in which official actions by the supervisor — e.g., an extremely dangerous job assignment to retaliate for spurned advances — could make employment intolerable, but nothing like that is present here.
Rather, all of Appel's conduct was exceedingly unofficial and involved no direct exercise of company authority. With one possible qualification to which we will return, this premise is so clear that no extended discussion is needed. Thus, Appel's behavior is exactly the kind of wholly unauthorized conduct for which the affirmative defense was designed. Yes, Appel's supervisory status may have facilitated his harassment, but that is a reason for vicarious liability, Ellerth, 524 U.S. at 763-64, 118 S.Ct. 2257, not for bypassing the affirmative defense. Whether the conduct
Reed claims — and this is the possible qualification — that even if official action is needed for a tangible employment action, here Appel told her that they would both be fired if she reported the assault. However, we think that this issue is controlled by the Supreme Court's statement in Ellerth that "unfulfilled threats" are not tangible employment actions. 524 U.S. at 754, 118 S.Ct. 2257. The Court also stated that the concept of a tangible employment action is based on the distinction between "cases in which threats are carried out and those where they are not or are absent altogether." Id. at 751, 118 S.Ct. 2257.
This brings us to the affirmative defense itself and we start with the first prong: that the employer prove that it "exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior...." Ellerth, 524 U.S. at 765, 118 S.Ct. 2257. Although the burden of proof lies on the employer as to both prongs of the affirmative defense, summary judgment for the employer is still possible so long as raw facts are undisputed or assumed in favor of the plaintiff. Even then, however, the judgment call as to reasonableness is itself a jury issue unless no reasonable jury could decide it in the plaintiff's favor. Mota v. Univ. of Tex. Houston Health Sci. Ctr., 261 F.3d 512, 525 (5th Cir.2001).
On the merits, the district court ruled that MBNA did take reasonable precautions to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior by its employees. The district court noted that MBNA had a policy against sexual harassment and a procedure that called for employees to present complaints either to their manager or directly to MBNA Personnel Department officials. This gave Reed an alternative route around Appel even if complaining to Appel's own manager was infeasible. MBNA offered evidence, by means proper at the summary judgment stage, both of its own procedures and of its efforts to publicize them.
Reed admitted in her deposition that she attended an orientation on MBNA's sexual harassment policies before she started working at the company in 1999 and again when she returned in 2000. She also told an investigator with the Maine Human Rights Commission that MBNA stressed its sexual, harassment policies. She conceded that she saw posters regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and knew she could go to personnel if she was sexually harassed. In any event, MBNA began an investigation the day that Reed reported Appel's conduct, and Reed concedes that Appel was removed from the work-place almost immediately.
Reed argues that, although MBNA's policies were fine in theory, they failed in practice. She claims that several employees reported Appel's inappropriate conduct but MBNA never took any action. However, although these reports indicated that Appel was not a model manager, only one related to sexual harassment. In that instance Appel's conduct, while patently improper, was largely confined to remarks freighted with sexual innuendo made to (or in the presence of) another female subordinate. When the employee complained in October 1999, MBNA investigated the episode
Reed says that MBNA should have taken stronger measures at that time and objects in particular to the deposition statement of the investigating MBNA personnel official that "[i]f there is any shadow of a doubt, then we give the doubt to the person because we are not going to place someone on corrective action if we are not 100 percent sure." This statement, whatever its advisability if treated as a general company policy, was made simply in explaining why Appel — after Reed reported his harassment to personnel — was given the opportunity to respond to her allegations. It does not show that MBNA lacked a substantial anti-harassment program, and thus we agree with the district court that MBNA satisfied the first prong of the affirmative defense.
The crux of this appeal concerns the second prong of the affirmative defense. MBNA argues that Reed unreasonably failed to take advantage of the company's sexual harassment policy, which explicitly provided that employees who were sexually harassed should report that harassment to their manager or directly to personnel and that this could be done on a confidential basis. In contrast, arguing that reasonableness is at least a jury issue, Reed points to her age, embarrassment, Appel's threat that they would both be fired, and his claim of family friendship with MBNA's owner. The district court responded as follows:
Reed, 231 F.Supp.2d at 375.
There is no bright-line rule as to when a failure to file a complaint becomes unreasonable, but Faragher and Ellerth do provide some indirect guidance. Reporting sexually offensive conduct by a supervisor would for many or most employees be uncomfortable, scary or both. But because this will often or ordinarily be true, as the Supreme Court certainly knew, its regime necessarily requires the employee in normal circumstances to make this painful effort if the employee wants to impose vicarious liability on the employer and collect damages under Title VII. In short, for policy reasons representing a compromise, more than ordinary fear or embarrassment is needed. See, e.g., Matvia v. Bald Head Island Mgmt., Inc., 259 F.3d 261, 270 (4th Cir.2001).
Several courts have therefore focused on whether the employee had concrete reason to apprehend that complaint would be useless
Yet sometimes inaction is reasonable — this is the Supreme Court's premise — and circuit case law is now emerging. In Mota, the plaintiff was a visiting professor who was sexually harassed by the department head who then told the plaintiff that the university would defend the department head against any type of complaint brought against him, as it had allegedly done in the past, and that he had "helped" certain people whom he did not like leave the school. Mota, 261 F.3d at 516. The court concluded that the jury's finding that the plaintiff's failure to avail himself of available remedies was not unreasonable given the department head's "repeated threats of retaliation" and "influence at the university." Id. at 525-26.
Distasio v. Perkin Elmer Corp., 157 F.3d 55 (2d Cir.1998), is analogous. There the plaintiff (a functionally illiterate immigrant) was verbally and physically harassed by a co-worker and reported some of the harassing acts to her immediate supervisor, who first stated that she was crazy and then told her that she should not say anything further about it or she would lose her job. Id. at 59-60. The company argued that she unreasonably failed to report the later harassing acts to the supervisor. Instead, the court ruled that "the jury could find that [the plaintiff] ... believed that she would lose her job if she reported further incidents to [the supervisor]" and, if so, the failure to report was excusable. Id. at 64-65.
The approach taken in Mota and Distasio cannot be pressed too far: general statements by a supervisor that a complaint will be futile or will get the employee in trouble cannot be an automatic excuse for failing to use the complaint mechanism. Claims of futility or adverse consequences have to be "credible," Caridad, 191 F.3d at 295. The complaint mechanism, after all, can be used to address threats of retaliation as well as harassment, and unless patently futile, concerns as to whether the complaint mechanism will fail can be tested by trying it out if failure is the only cost. But where there is a truly credible threat of retaliation that the complaint mechanism will not prevent, the employee's position is more hazardous and inaction more easily explained.
We must assess the reasonableness of Reed's failure to report Appel's actions at two points; first, in summer 1999 before Reed was sexually assaulted (but during which period Appel was making mildly harassing comments), and second, in fall 1999 after the sexual assault. The failure to report Appel in the summer of 1999 is significant because it might have prevented everything that followed. See Savino v. C.P. Hall Co., 199 F.3d 925, 935 (7th Cir.1999). And, as at this point Appel had made no threats nor inflicted a physical assault, fear cannot justify the failure to complain. However, Reed could reasonably have regarded this initial low-level harassment as not worth reporting; indeed, standing alone, it may not have triggered Title VII liability at all. Thus the failure to report at this stage was not
The failure to report the assault itself is a much harder question; on summary judgment, where our review is de novo, the issue is whether a reasonable jury, resolving credibility and inference issues in her favor, could choose to side with Reed. Distasio, 157 F.3d at 64-65. The alleged threat by Appel — that they would both be fired if she reported his assault — is arguably less plausible than the more straightforward threats of retaliation in Mota and Distasio; and, objectively, Appel's claim of family influence with the company might also seem flimsy in relation to what on Reed's account was a serious criminal act. And, we agree with the district court that embarrassment alone was not an excuse.
But this is not the whole story. Crediting Reed's version of events, as we must do on summary judgment, she was a seventeen year old who had just been assaulted by a supervisor twice her age. In addition to inflicting this trauma, he then threatened her with discharge, telling her that they would both be fired if she reported his actions.
Despite our respect for the district court's judgment, we cannot say that a jury would be acting irrationally if (as the record stands) it resolved factual doubts in her favor and concluded that Reed was actually cowed by the threat and reasonably so. Admittedly, the second prong of the defense creates a loophole for false or overstated claims of threat by one hoping to reach a sympathetic jury. But juries are supposed to be good at detecting false claims and at evaluating reasonable behavior in human situations. In any event the Supreme Court's compromise solution binds us.
MBNA may at trial prevail on its affirmative defense. As the record now stands (and the trial record may look different), the jury might well conclude that in fact Reed was not traumatized or even greatly concerned about the threat. Inferences in this direction exist based inter alia on the delay in Reed's departure, the fact of her return, her further delay in complaining, and in her explanations for various actions. Or, the jury might conclude that whatever Reed's state of mind, a reasonable person in her position would have reported Appel's assault. All we can say now is that a triable issue exists as to the second prong of the affirmative defense.
We do not minimize the difficulties of presenting the issue to a jury. Admissibility issues and instruction drafting are likely
The judgment of the district court is vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision.
It is so ordered.