WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has ruled that former employees of a Severna Park Taco Bell can pursue a sexual harassment claim for the “campaign of torment” that the restaurant manager directed at them.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision by a federal district judge in Maryland who granted summary judgment for R&R Ventures, the owner of the restaurant.
R&R had argued that while the Severna Park manager was a “difficult” person, he did not engage in sex-based harassment but abused male and female employees equally.
But the higher court strongly disagreed.
“Throughout his campaign of torment,” the court wrote in its Friday opinion, the Severna Park manager “was an adult male in a supervisory position over young women barely half his age. And he is alleged to have engaged in a systematic effort to cripple the self-esteem of the teen-agers who assisted him at the store.”
That conduct was severe enough to allow the case to go forward to trial on the charges of sexual harassment, the appellate court said.
According to court documents, the manager routinely commented about the size of one teen employee’s breasts and buttocks, asked if she liked to be spanked and told her she gave him a “cheap thrill” when she bent over. Court papers said she eventually developed an eating disorder and lost a great deal of weight, in an effort to avoid attracting attention to her body.
The teen quit in June 1996, but returned to work in August. After an October 1996 confrontation with the manager, however, she was told to go home and then was never returned to the schedule, according to court documents.
The teen filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February 1997, about the time that the court said a 20-year-old woman began working at the Severna Park store.
That woman complained that she had to endure sexual comments and verbal abuse every time she worked with the manager, and that she cried daily at the prospect of working with him. Court documents said he complained to her about his sex life and demeaned her in front of other employees, telling her she was stupid.
Both employees complained independently about his conduct to other managers and to officials at R&R. The teen said her complaints were largely ignored and the older woman said she was first told she was overreacting and later cursed by the manager for lodging a complaint with higher management.
The manager was eventually transferred to another site, but the woman’s hours were cut so significantly after that, she quit, according to court documents.
The EEOC sued R&R Ventures in March 1999, holding it responsible for a hostile work environment and claiming it had retaliated against the two employees for their complaints.
Attorneys for R&R Ventures could not be reached for comment Tuesday and calls to the company’s offices were not returned. But in court filings, the company claimed that the former Severna Park manager was an “equal-opportunity” harasser, targeting men and women alike, and that his troubling conduct was not frequent.
The company also said that the remarks were not bad enough to support a claim of a hostile work place, and his comments were neither physically threatening nor humiliating, but merely offensive.
U.S. District Judge Frederic Smalkin sided with R&R, prompting an EEOC appeal to the circuit court, which forcefully overturned the lower court’s ruling.
“The incessant put-downs, innuendos and leers directed at these young women literally caused them to become sick at the prospect of going to work,” the opinion said.
The appellate court said R&R failed to take prompt action to correct the problems, which might have protected it from liability.
“It’s hard for me to put into words the excitement I felt reading the opinion,” said Tracy Hudson Spicer, senior trial attorney for the EEOC’s Baltimore office.
Spicer, who brought the original suit against R&R Ventures, said the ruling “sends a clear message” to employers “that you have to take care of your younger employees.”